Right after I first graduated college, when almost everyone I knew was frantically trying to shake off the damp fugue of their University Cocoons, my friends and I maintained a running email thread that essentially consisted of updates on our various forays into professional development.
As someone who hasn't worn a high heel to work more than once a year since 2008, I thought the updates from my bros on the high-powered corporate track were incredibly fascinating.
One friend had only been on the job for a month or so and was already having trouble with her supervisor.
"I think this is why people don't like female bosses," another friend on the thread said. "Because there's always an element of competition there."
Someone else on the thread agreed, and we moved onto other subjects. At the time, I couldn't contribute -- my only jobs up to that point had been in the service industry, where my female bosses had either been my friend (barista) or not quite sure of my name (daycare provider), and as a contract consolidator for the state of California, where my supervisor had been a dude.
None of those specific jobs particularly engendered the kind of competition my friend was referencing, and I wondered whether I would agree with her by the time I'd worked in an actual, NBC-faux-reality-show-style office.
Today, I can say with confidence: No. I absolutely do not agree. I love having female bosses, especially when they're so badass and competent that I spend the first few weeks of our acquaintance being vaguely terrified of them. And it really bums me out that more women would prefer to work for a male supervisor than a female one.
I don't really think my acute admiration for all my female ones has as much to do with their gender as the fact that they're really excellent at their jobs and at personnel management. Some of my friends have had long conversations with their female supervisors about what it means to be a woman in the workplace, but that's never been the case at my jobs.
What really interests me about surveys like that Gallup poll, as well as my friends' anecdotes, is that female bosses seem to suffer from the actions of their peers, while male bosses can just be individual jerkwads without dragging the rest of America's male supervisors through the dirt.
The only time I have had a personal issue with a supervisor, it was a comparatively mild one -- I was in college, working as an assistant at our student-run newspaper, and once a week I had to go in until 3 or 4 AM to help drag the finished proofs onto PDFs and send it off to the printer. It was pretty boring, and except for a few of my friends on the writing staff, no one ever really talked to me, so it was lonely, too. And my supervisor was brutal.
As a stereotypical Dirtbag Millennial, my worst self-criticism has generated from my own not inconsiderable anxiety -- I'm not used to hearing that I'm useless from outside my own head. But this time, I was getting screamed at every shift for weeks for every small mistake I made and snapped at every time I asked a question, and it was making me miserable. I know being yelled at from the comfort of a seated position at a newsroom isn't exactly the coal mines (or the fast food industry), but it still hurt my feelings and made the whole experience unpleasant.
And you know what I took away from that? That that guy, individually, was kind of a dick. I didn't use it as justification for hating all male supervisors, nor would the thought have ever occurred to me. Yet I often hear, from both my peers and the media, people of every gender declaring that all female co-workers (especially those in a senior position) are "catty," or "competitive," or boring," because they've had a negative experience with just one.
This, in turn, has led to attitudes like those expressed in a recent telecommunications firm survey, which found that a quarter of British women actively tried to act "more masculine" in the workplace to gain more professional respect. In this case, "masculine" means controlling, ruthless, and as unfeeling as possible -- in other words, like sort of d-bag. (Personally, I would much rather work with someone who concentrated more on team success than furthering their individual accomplishments, but that's probably because I'm not focusing enough on the "masculine" aspects of my personality to maximize my professional success or something.)
At the same time, that article points out that female bosses aren't liked in the workplace -- because they're supposedly controlling, ruthless, and as unfeeling as possible.
For women, our corporate culture is apparently a sucker's game. According to the popular narrative, we can either be well liked or be professional, be gregarious or be successful. It's no wonder women feel like they have to act "like men" in the workplace: any possible reminder that we're not dudes opens us not just to criticism of our own behavior, but to the behavior of every other woman who has ever pursued a career.
As a result, we try to make ourselves immune from that generalization by distancing ourselves as much as possible from the other women in our workplace and fields. It's a tactic used by pretty much every majority to further oppression -- using the behavior of one marginalized person to justify punishing everyone in the group. It sucks, but it's also apparently effective, if the nearly half of British women who say their bosses are "alpha females" is anything to go by.
So what's the solution? Aside from getting a more diverse array of women in the workplace to show that being professional doesn't necessitate becoming a cyborg, obviously. For one thing, I'd like to propose not equating one's boss troubles with the fact that she's a lady. It struck me the other day that I rarely hear straight women (or men) complain that they "just don't get along with men," yet it's a phrase I hear about women all the time. Rather than deciding that our boss's jerkwaddery makes us incapable of working under the supervision of a woman, let's determine that we're incapable of working under the supervision of jerkwads. It may make for less of a rant on our old college email threads, but it'll be better for women in the workplace in the long run.
Kate's on Twitter: @katchatters.