Female Bosses Expected to be More Understanding

Female bosses are expected to play "office moms," while male bosses are held to a lower emotional standard, a new study finds.

As many know, workplace dynamics can eerily resemble those of a family. New research shows that female managers' skill at accurately read others' emotions impacts whether they get "gold stars" from subordinates.

The same isn't true for men. Employees don't evaluate male managers on their ability to read facial expressions or sense tones of voice.

The study's lead author suggests gender stereotypes are to blame.

"It seems female managers may be expected to be sensitive to others' emotions and to demonstrate this sensitivity by providing emotional support," said researcher Kristin Byron of the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University in New York.

She added, "Because of this, female managers' job performance is judged on them being understanding, kind, supportive and sensitive."

Rate your boss

Byron surveyed managers and subordinates. Forty-four part-time MBA students with supervisory jobs and 78 hospitality managers rated the emotional state depicted in a series of photos showing facial expressions and postures, as well as audio clips with different tones of voice.

She also asked the staff of these managers to rate their bosses along three dimensions:

  • Supportive: Statements included "My manager shows concern for me as a person."
  • Persuasive: Statements included "My manager can inspire enthusiasm for a project."
  • Overall satisfaction: Statements included "I am satisfied with the degree of respect and fair treatment I get from my boss."

Female managers who were lousy at decoding unspoken emotions were seen as less caring and received lower satisfaction ratings from their staff.

Male leaders who were bad at spotting emotions were not subject to the same negative evaluations. Byron thinks this has to do with societal views of men's roles.

"It is far more important for male managers, and men, in general, to be seen as analytical, logical and good at reasoning than showing care and concern for others," Byron said.

Workplace dynamics

Reading emotional cues can help managers support a frustrated employee and know the right tactics for persuading staff to complete a project, Byron said.

So men can benefit from being emotionally tuned to their workers as well, the study found.

Male managers who were more accurate at emotion perception received higher satisfaction ratings if they used the information to be more persuasive. More emotionally perceptive female managers received higher satisfaction ratings when they demonstrated more supportiveness.

The findings are detailed in the Nov. 24 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.