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The Female Boss: How We See Women in Power [2021 Study]

Equal opportunity? Not by a long shot. Women in leadership remain burdened by the weight of expectations and stereotypes. Here’s what people really think about having a #girlboss.

Bart Turczynski
Bart Turczynski
Career Expert
The Female Boss: How We See Women in Power [2021 Study]

female boss

In 2014, the term girlboss was popularized by American entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso and became a rallying cry for contemporary feminism. It was everywhere: in ads, media, women's stationery, and, absurdly, written on T-shirts made in countries where women are underpaid.

As a manifesto of a young, insecure generation of women, #girlboss bore countless hopes, dreams, and gleefully hard-nosed aspirations out into the ether. 

However, despite the passage of time, female leadership remains limited in all but a few specific industries, and in most cases, the glass ceiling holds as firm as ever.

To further explore the situation of women in management, we've asked more than 800 Americans about their views, opinions, and experiences with women in power.

We found plenty of positives, but we also discovered some incredibly disturbing views that prove we still haven’t won the battle for management equality.

Keep on reading to see what we uncovered.

So you think #girlboss is overrated?

The popularity of the girlboss phenomenon has sparked widespread interest. It has also attracted its fair share of criticism. But regardless of the merits of the term, it prompted renewed interest in women leaders at work.

Science shows that women tend to be effective managers. Numerous studies, including Gallup's survey of almost 27 million employees worldwide, proved women bosses tend to outperform their male counterparts at work because they are better at driving employee engagement.

But it seems that gender stereotypes and prejudices have lagged far behind reality. For a start, 55% of our respondents somewhat or strongly agree that women in managerial positions are often held to higher performance standards than men.

So while gender roles and our visions of what makes a successful woman have evolved, the pressure for perfection remains enormous.

Fortunately, although expectations are high, satisfaction with female leaders seems relatively high too.

female boss

90% of our respondents have worked in a team led by a female manager, of which 59% currently work in a team led by a woman. 

70% of them found female managers effective overall, of which 49% said they were highly effective. So it’s no surprise that 67% of respondents have a positive attitude towards women managing their team and 62% of them have positive sentiments about women leading their organization.

We were also pleased to see that 38% of respondents would prefer to work for a female boss compared to 26% that would prefer to work for a man and 35% that have no preference.

It was also a pleasant surprise that 38% of respondents thought women are better at leadership positions compared to 35% of respondents who thought men are better leaders.

So far, so good. But that’s not to say those female leaders have it easy. They suffer the same pressures of professional success as men, while simultaneously facing the old stereotype of being a caring female.

Those assumptions were evident in the results of our survey. When asked about which industries are most suitable for women, these were our respondents’ top choices:

  • Health Care: 65%
  • Education/Library: 61%
  • HR industries: 53%
  • Finance/Real estate/Insurance: 51%
  • Office administration: 51%
  • Personal care/Social services: 51%
  • Arts/Design/Fashion: 51%

This isn’t a big surprise, as evidence of stereotypical public expectations of women can be found in many studies on this topic. For example, a study conducted by The American Psychological Association showed that despite significant changes in gender stereotypes and social roles, certain beliefs persist in the attitudes of many Americans.

Gender divide

Our own findings backed up this persistence of certain beliefs, and the numbers were even more striking when we broke them down by gender. The results show that gender standards haven’t changed as much as you may think and trust in female leaders is much lower among men than among women.

Could this be due to lingering beliefs about women not being cut out for managerial roles? Or maybe it’s because some men fear losing their own jobs and struggle to accept women in authority?

Although our findings don’t paint a clear picture of the reasons for these differences, the gender divide in responses can’t be denied.

Here’s what women have to say about other women in leadership:

  • 48% would prefer to work for a female manager.
  • 72% feel rather or very positive about having women leaders in their organization
  • Another 42% would trust a woman more than a man to lead a company.

As for men? The difference is striking.

  • Just 28% of them would prefer to work for a female manager.
  • Only 53% feel rather or very positive about having women leaders in their organization.
  • And a mere 17% would trust a woman more than a man to lead a company.

female boss

The statistics leave no doubt that the gender divide remains firmly in place in the beliefs of many. 

Racial divide

female boss

There was another aspect where our study revealed even more striking data regarding differences and inequalities in the labor market. Our respondents acknowledged the fact that women of color still face a particularly difficult situation in the workplace.

Consider these findings:

These numbers send the message loud and clear. Women of color face particularly daunting challenges in the workplace. And thankfully, most people seem to recognize this.

Other statistics also confirm a poor state of opportunities for women of color. The situation became even worse during the pandemic. According to the New York Times, nearly one million American mothers left the workforce, with Black, Hispanic, and single mothers among the worst affected. 

Overall, there's no doubt that the employment equality gap for women of color remains present today, and despite a growing awareness of their plight, they remain the most disadvantaged of all.

Keeping up appearances

Let's face it, the popular media still treats female leaders as a sensation and a curiosity. And emphasizing that you are a female boss or a female founder only proves that there's still plenty to do in terms of building social acceptance. After all, gender should never be a qualifier when it comes to achievement.

Almost a third of our respondents stated that the media and popular culture usually presents men as leaders at work. And the same number felt that female leaders in the workplace are usually presented as an exception or a curiosity. 

Another 59% agreed that women are under-represented in portrayals of management positions, with 52% agreeing that women are over-represented in portrayals of support functions, like administration. 

female boss

However, there remains some hope. 37% of respondents thought it's better for an organization's image to be represented by a woman compared to 34% that said it's better to be represented by a man. A pretty equal balance.

This leads us to whether popular culture is evolving to accept female boss role models as natural or sticking with old practices. Outmoded stereotypes are another challenge that female leaders face every day.

Facing stereotypes

Despite some hope for improvement, it seems that one of the greatest difficulties experienced by women in managerial positions is facing outdated gender stereotypes.

This situation was particularly visible in our survey results. For example, 45% of respondents somewhat or strongly believed that women follow their emotions while men go by logical thinking when making a decision.

We also gave our respondents the chance to openly share their thoughts, and the responses ranged from positive to embarrassingly stereotyped, all the way to aggressively misogynistic.

Here’s a selection of responses:

[I prefer] a male boss because they are less emotional.

Women can be more sympathetic, which can lead to their employees walking all over them. Men rarely have that problem.

[I prefer] female because I can talk them into anything.

I've never had a female boss before, but I work in the manufacturing industry. But as a woman, I know that we can be emotional and hold grudges. I wouldn't want to have to deal with all that drama at a job. So in a way, I'm glad that I never have.

Males are always independent of emotions and feelings. Also, they concentrate only on work with superior flexibility.

In my experience, female bosses are too emotional and do not trust employees as male bosses do.

But there's more to it than that. We also discovered a range of positive stereotypes. For example, another 57% of respondents somewhat or strongly agree that female managers are better at communication and this was reflected in the open responses we received: 

I think female bosses are more willing to listen and take everyone's perspective into consideration. Men are more matter of fact.

I think overall, women managers are better communicators, but men are more likely to hold individuals accountable.

Female. Communication is better, expectations are clearer, and collaboration on problem-solving is more frequent. Work feels more like a team effort than an individual burden.

I prefer to work with a female because having to work with women in the workplace actually makes an organization a better place to work, for people of all genders.

Another positive stereotype is female forbearance. 44% of respondents think women managers are more understanding when it comes to slip-ups at work. And this impression of understanding and compassion was also reflected in the open responses:

The past 8 years I have had a female boss. I think I prefer this as they are more understanding when it comes to things outside of work. I am a caregiver, and there are times when this may interfere with my schedule. My boss was also previously a caregiver to her mother, and I think this helps her understand my situation better.

Rather work with a female boss. A female will be more understanding of certain situations, such as having to miss work due to not having someone take care of the children at home. A female boss will be more compassionate about her employees and company.

Females are more understanding of family issues, I am never afraid to tell my boss about my problems at home.

On the other hand, a few respondents preferred to stick to the old opinion that a woman’s place is in the home:

I would prefer to work with a man. Women should stay home and be homemakers.

Women belong in the home. Notice how many major companies have been started by men vs women. Women now want special treatment when they have contributed very little to the major companies that make our country tick today. Also, notice when wage growth stagnated it’s when women entered the workforce. This gives employers an excuse to pay less because both spouses are working. Women want every special treatment possible and any hardship they blame on sexism, etc. Bottom line is all women should just stay at home and take care of the Home front and raise children.

Women should be at home making babies instead of flooding the workplace so men can not have jobs and create families. Women in the workplace cause distractions, men and women can not work together nor should they stay at home so men can earn more and support you. Feminism is cancer and honestly most female bosses I have had were shallow incompetent individuals who care more about how they are seen rather than how they are doing.

There is no doubt that opinions about female leaders remain divided, and some of the worst stereotypes of the past remain. And for many, their leadership status remains a curiosity at best. 

So to finish, we leave you with a selection of the most prevalent stereotypes selected by our respondents. These are the assumptions that will need to be addressed to create better work conditions for female leaders of the future. 

female boss

It’s not all bad news though. Generally, compared to even the recent past the overall acceptance of female leaders has improved. 

But there’s also no doubt that there’s a lot that can still be done to help women in management to flourish. Some of the very worst stereotypes are still rife. As we noted earlier, women leaders still have a hard fight ahead of them to truly win the battle for equality.


The findings presented were obtained by surveying 801 Americans using a bespoke online polling tool. All respondents included in the study passed an attention-check question. They were asked a series of questions related to their opinions on women in leadership in the workplace. These included yes/no questions, scale-based questions relating to levels of agreement with a statement, questions that permitted the selection of multiple options from a list of potential answers, and questions that allowed open responses. 


The data we are presenting rely on self-reports from respondents. As experience is subjective, we understand that there are many potential limitations with self-reported data as some participants and their answers might be affected by recency, selective memory, attribution, exaggeration, self-selection, non-response, or voluntary response bias.

Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this is either due to rounding or due to responses of “neither/neutral/unknown” not being presented.


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Bart Turczynski

Bart Turczynski’s career advice and commentary have been published by Glassdoor, The Chicago Tribune, Workopolis, The Financial Times, Hewlett-Packard, and CareerBuilder, among others. Bart’s mission is to promote the best, data-informed, and up-to-date career advice through numerous online communities and publications. Bart’s lifelong passion for politics and a strong background in psychology make all the advice he publishes unique and supported by detailed research.

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