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Would You Prefer to Work for a Man or Woman?

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On the surface, the question of which gender one prefers to work for seems absurd in a climate where presumably, most professionals yearn to be employed in a challenging, well-compensated role among intelligent and thoughtful co-workers.

Yet, surprisingly, it's an admission we can't stop making. I once hired a woman who expressed delight that she finally gets to work for another woman. Her response troubled me since I worried that she was entering our working relationship with all sorts of misconceptions about how "women" act as managers. Am I supposed to be softer? More understanding? Would I subconsciously alter the way I manage in order to escape these stereotypes?

Posing the question, would you prefer to work for a man or women strikes me as treading in dangerous territory. For one, it insinuates that men and women fall into different stereotypical "types" as leaders. It also assumes that a terrible or wonderful manager somehow remains representative of his or her entire gender.

But like it or not (I don't), many outwardly ask this question -- or secretly maintain a preference -- so the responses require closer examination.

To that end, a LinkedIn group for professional women recently asked its members "Does it matter what gender your boss is?" and approximately 1,800 people, mainly women, responded. While 67 per cent of the respondents said that their manager's sex didn't matter, 23 per cent admitted they preferred a male boss. Only 5 per cent suggested they preferred working for a woman. Littered among the comments were anecdotes about female managers who were "petty" or "emotional" and focused on "personal agendas."

These results remain consistent with a survey conducted by Emily Bennington, author of Who Says It's a Man's World: The Girls Guide to Corporate Domination. Ms. Bennington asked over 750 executive women "Would you rather work for a man or a woman?" and uncovered some troubling insights. While 56 per cent of respondents said their manager's gender didn't matter, 32 per cent said they would elect to work for a man if given a choice and 11 would choose a woman. That's a three to one margin preferring a male manager -- not a big win for those advocating a more gender enlightened workforce.

The survey showed that women prefer male bosses since they believe them to be more direct, less competitive and because women are "too emotional."

"Respondents felt that men were simply more direct in their communications. In the comments part of this question, I would see things like "men are no-nonsense" or "men are to-the-point" over and over again," said Ms. Bennington, who said women were dinged for making too much small talk before asking for what they wanted. The survey participants who would choose their boss on gender felt that men were less competitive and less emotional than women.

Reassuringly, the viewpoint on this question of whom one prefers to work for seems to be evolving. Gallup, the polling company, has been posing this question to Americans since the 1950s and while more Americans still prefer a male boss, the gap remains at its smallest point ever. Gallup also discovered that the gender of one's current boss weighs heavily in the decision of whom they'd like their next one to be. Surprisingly, more women than men appear to have an opinion on this topic.

"The bottom line is that the "pink ghetto" is not entirely a thing of the past, and that both genders are responsible and culpable for keeping that alive and thriving," observed Tanya Raheel, a Toronto-based coach at Discover Your Awesome, a program for men and women trying to figure out the next step in their career.

"Women managers are not seen as managers first. They are seen as women first, and often not through the most positive lens," she added.

Ms. Raheel attributes some of this bias to age, believing that Millennials bring a refreshing view of gender neutrality to the workplace. Cultural backgrounds also play a role in determining these preferences.

Julia Richardson, associate professor of organizational behaviour at York University recounted how one MBA student she taught at the University of Otago, in New Zealand admitted he could never have a female mentor or work for a female manager since his cultural background, as an indigenous Maori wouldn't support it. While the student acknowledged this had no bearing on his perception of women's abilities, he couldn't shed his cultural framework.

Ms. Richardson supported her former student's honesty and suggested that more professionals should examine some of the gender preferences they carry with them that may apply to their lives outside of work.

"Why do some of us prefer to have a particular gender for a particular service?" asked Mr. Richardson. It's an interesting question to keep in mind next time you request a female doctor or a male hairdresser.