How to lead like a (wo)manager

Ahead of Workplace Wellbeing Day, a study reveals female bosses are better at guiding staff and helping their career prospects. Vive la difference, says Rosamund Urwin

Executive order: Christine Baranski plays Diane Lockhart, a top litigator and senior partner of a Chicago law firm on The Good Wife

Would you rather have a male boss or a female boss? Perhaps you're bristling at even being asked that question: you're much more interested in your office overlord's clout, competence and largesse with the entertainment expenses than you are their chromosomes. But according to a report published earlier this month by the equality campaign group the 30% Club, women and men do guide staff differently, and male bosses don't steer their male underlings in the same way they do women.

The study looked at managers in 10 large businesses who oversee at least one male and one female member of staff, quizzing all three. It found that as staff of both sexes become more senior, they spend a lot less time with their (wo)managers. But at one rung below senior management, men were four times more likely to receive career-related advice from their managers than women were. It also found that male managers sometimes put the brakes on a woman's career.

"It wasn't malicious but they were slowing down her advancement by making allowances, such as not giving her a project that involves international travel," says Rachel Short, a steering committee member of the 30% Club. "But they weren't actually having the conversation with her."

For many of these male bosses, being asked to scrutinise their management patterns led to an "a-ha!" moment. "Many of the men said 'I actually am managing my female staff differently'," says Pavita Cooper, another steering committee member of the 30% Club. "Managers at every level need to be taught how to help staff, especially women: advising them on getting a sponsor, developing skills, and ensuring they are meeting the right people."

Anne-Marie Taylor is a management consultant and a steering committee member of the 30% Club's Irish branch. "We have no reason to believe that the results would be any different in Ireland," she says. A recent survey on Women in Management in Ireland 2016, conducted by the 30% Club and DCU, showed that the percentage of female managers declines at each level of the management hierarchy. At the most junior level, less than 40pc of managers are female, and this declines to 17pc at the most senior level.

"Where are the other women? Obviously, some leave the workforce and some choose not to climb the linear career ladder, but many of us have an uncomfortable feeling that there are other reasons which we don't yet fully understand, and it may have to do with the way women are managed, and manage themselves," she says.

The pitfalls for male managers

Ambitious assumptions

When male managers were asked if their subordinates could step into their shoes, their responses differed for male and female staff. "They might have caveats around men being promoted - they might say, 'He's not strong on people management but I think he could do my job now and he'd do it as well as me'," says Cooper. "But with their female staff, they'd assume she wouldn't want to do it, and then reference the skills she doesn't have. This often happens in the boardroom - if a man doesn't have the exact skills needed, he's given the benefit of the doubt, but if a woman doesn't, she's seen as not ready for the role." However, when the female staff were surveyed, they said: "I could definitely do that job now."

Well-meaning sexism

"There is certainly a view that male bosses can show a 'benevolent paternalism' towards women, whether consciously or unconsciously. This can manifest in well-intentioned, but ultimately unhelpful, attitudes to ambitious women," says Taylor. For instance, if an overseas assignment comes up, or a challenging project which requires long hours, a male boss may feel he's doing a female employee with young children a favour by not recommending her for the position. But these jobs, Taylor notes, can be crucial to building the kind of experience necessary for senior promotions.

Man time

The study found a significant difference in how much time managers spend with their subordinates. Male managers thought they were splitting their time evenly between male and female staff but the latter disagreed. "When you think about how work is awarded, how you stay in tune with what is happening in your organisation, then spending less time with your boss means you can't decode the messages about how to get promoted," says Cooper. Female bosses spent the same amount of time with both sexes, and were twice as likely to say they used their time to develop their staff. Vive la difference

Female managers were three times as likely as their male counterparts to value difference on their teams. "They promote the broadest range of diversity - race, sexuality, way of thinking," says Cooper. "So if you're lacking women leaders, you're less likely to have diversity generally." Male managers believed they guided their male and female subordinates in a similar way, but female bosses were five times more likely to say they changed their approach according to an employee's skills and motivation.

The caring vs competence conundrum

There's a tipping point for gender diversity at the middle of the executive pipeline. At that point, women are often taking on more domestic responsibilities than their male peers as they try to climb the career ladder. "Care-giving plays into gender stereotypes, heightening perceptions of warmth and undermining perceptions of competence," says Short. "It is here that motivationally astute managers are ideally placed to keep women investing in career-building, while less gender-aware managers can inadvertently compound career risk for women."