"My Female Boss Intimidated Me — And I'm Better Off Because of It"
By Claire Landsbaum
Female bosses have good reason to develop behavior patterns that their subordinates might find intimidating.
It's a well-documented fact that although women make up a little more than half (52 percent) of the American labor force, they hold far fewer leadership positions — only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.
In fact, studies show that male subordinates feel threatened by female bosses and tend to respond more aggressively toward them, and a new survey shows that adolescents — both male and female — still prefer to see men in leadership roles.
To compensate for the many, many factors working against them, some female bosses are strictly no-nonsense. Some are intimidating because they're utterly self-assured, and some are so straightforward that they come off as abrasive.
But brusque lady bosses come with perks. Although it might seem counterintuitive, your most intimidating boss can be your greatest asset.
John*, who worked as a recruiter for a web-based news company for almost a year, was initially intimidated by his female boss because of her dedication. "She always looked super engaged in whatever she was doing," he said. "If she was working on something, it was intimidating to try to pull her away because she looked so intensely focused."
Her attitude made him nervous to ask questions or admit mistakes.
"Finally I did something that ended up costing the company money," he said. "She put up a listing for a replacement. When I saw it I worked up the courage to confront her, and I think she respected that."
He left the position a few months later on a high note, having run the department while she was on vacation. "Toward the end I was more willing to speak up and had the courage to flourish at the harder parts of my job," he said. "I think that lack of complacency improved me as a person because it was the first time I had to work really hard to impress someone."
The key to a fulfilling job, he said, is to grow as an employee. It's easier to operate outside your comfort zone if your boss is someone who pushes you there, i.e. someone who won't let you do things halfway. In that vein intimidation — and wanting to impress someone — can be a powerful motivator.
Thanks to his intimidating lady boss, John became a better communicator and a more honest person. But, he cautions, intimidation doesn’t work for everyone: "I don't think you should fake anything. If you try to be intimidating and you’re not, as soon as someone sees the cracks in that facade they'll steamroll over you. So be honest about who you are and figure out how to make that work for you. Intimidation does not equal success."
When it comes to workplace demeanor, women are victims of a vicious double-standard: Too sweet and we're a pushover, too stern and we're the office bitch. When you're a woman in the workplace, the mere fact that you're confident might be enough to intimidate male (and female) co-workers, subordinates, and higher-ups. Women shouldn't have to adopt alpha-male characteristics to be taken seriously, but they shouldn't shy away from their natural confidence, either.
Watch Brenda Berkman's video above about her promotion to lieutenant as a female at the FDNY and learn about how she fought for equality for all women as a firefighter here.
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