• Managing people

Male Bias Against Female Bosses

Why the growing backlash against the ‘woke agenda’ should not impede practical steps to raise more women into senior leadership roles


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As 40 British MPs refuse to undergo unconscious bias tests and a new executive order is signed by President Trump forbidding participation in ‘divisive’ diversity training, it is salutary to consider a recent study that provides some scientific evidence of bias—in this case by male employees against women bosses.

Diversity training has recently been targeted amidst a growing backlash against the so-called ‘woke agenda’. While this might not be surprising in our polarized times, it is important that it should not impede practical steps to raise more women into senior leadership roles.  A new study based on male teacher reactions to female principals—based on 40 years of data—sheds light on continued biases against female leaders in all industries and sectors.

The dearth of female leaders in industry, despite the stated intentions of most companies and organizations to encourage diversity and promote women, is well documented. Past studies in this field have focused in large part on the actions and biases of (mostly male) leaders, or on the career choices of women (e.g. fewer women training for jobs in male-dominated industries). 

This new research, from professors Aliza Husain and Amalia Miller of the University of Virginia and Professor David Matsa from Kellogg School of Management, examines whether male subordinates might be contributing to the problem, specifically by leaving their jobs when female bosses are appointed. The study, uses 40 years of data on teachers and principals in New York state school districts to determine: i) whether male teachers transfer to other schools or leave the district altogether when female principals are appointed; and, if so, ii) why males teachers prefer male principals.

Key findings

  • More teachers leave when the principal is female.By a statistically significant figure of 4%, more teachers leave under a female principal than a male principal. Further analysis shows that most of those who leave are male teachers. 
  • Male teachers are more likely than female teachers to leave schools with female principals.Specifically, male teachers were 12% likely than female teachers to leave a school led by a female principal.

The research explored the factors that might cause male teachers to avoid working for female principals. The research showed that:

  • Professional considerations don’t explain departures. While there was some indication that male teachers fared better under male bosses—earning more and being more likely to be promoted—the difference was minimal. It was hardly a difference that justifies the upheaval and potential loss of income of leaving a teaching position.
  • All indications point to male teacher bias.The research points, instead, to bias against female bosses as being more likely to cause the exodus of male teachers from female-led schools. 

The data in the research showed that in schools with a higher rate of female teachers, male teachers were less likely to request transfers or leave the district. The data also showed that over time, with all other variables held constant, male teachers were less likely to leave. Thus, using both these measures—rate of female teachers in a school and time period—the research confirmed that biases against female leaders caused male teachers to leave schools with female principals. 

How organizations should respond

This research offers key lessons for diversity efforts in all industries. The female share of the workforce is much higher in primary and secondary education than in most industries—and previous research has shown the rate of female employees in an industry impacts the acceptance of female leaders by male employees. As a result, the reticence of male employees to accept female bosses will be significantly more pronounced in other industries and professional sectors—if male teachers are biased, male factory workers or engineers will be even more biased. 

Time has tempered some of the bias against women leaders, although the lack of women in leadership roles at major companies indicates that hurdles remain. Companies have focused on creating professional development and promotion opportunities for women and offering diversity training to male leaders. As this research indicates, companies must pay equal attention to diversity training and other effort for male subordinates, many of who will be unhappy working for a female boss. If dissatisfaction of male subordinates is unchecked, the success of women in leadership roles, and the business units and organizations they lead, will be undermined.

Read the full research paper here: Do Male Workers Prefer Male Leaders? An Analysis of Principals’ Effects on Teacher and Retention. Aliza N. Husain, David A. Matsa & Amalia R. Miller. NBER Working Paper 25263 (November 2018).

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