Should a woman be your boss? Probably


Emotional. Bossy. Too Nice. The biases that still hold female leaders back – and how to overcome them.”

The headline on the cover of the September Harvard Business Review – like all good headlines – incited me to rage. Why, I fumed, are the stereotypes associated with “female styles” of management still seen as different, other, wrong, and in desperate need of being “overcome?”

The headline hit a nerve. Earlier in the week at the Future Forum conference for The Newspaperworks in Sydney, the four male CEOs of the Australian and New Zealand newspaper industry sat on stage together and admitted – somewhat sheepishly – that while there were lots of women in their organisations, none were at a level where they were likely to take over the top chair any time soon.

And that was rather a shame, but hey, what could you do? It wasn’t their fault. They loved women!

“C’mon, babe,” said my husband upon witnessing my reaction to the HBR headline. “You’ve got to admit it – that’s exactly what you’re all like!”

After more than 20 years together, he knows exactly how to push all my buttons.

There was a prolonged and intense period of spousal shouting, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. During the spat, he claimed I was proving his point on the “emotional and bossy” front. I countered that the three male stereotypes should be “Aggressive. Political. Self Important,” which he was demonstrating in spades.

No one in public debate however, was arguing that these were obnoxious traits that needed to be “overcome” – rather they were clichéd male behaviours that regularly resulted in promotion in media.

At which point we both stopped for air. 

For the women in the audience at the Future Forum, the comments by the CEOs were infinitely depressing because it’s a loop we have been in for at least three generations. And if you took their comments at face value, it seemed no closer to changing.

Newspaper companies are not alone in this. A survey of 60 major corporations by McKinsey & Company from last year shows that while 325,000 women had entry level positions, 150,000 had made it to middle management and only 7,000 made it to vice president, senior vice president, or CEO. Women on average made up 53% of entry-level employees, 40% of managers, and 35% of directors. Yet only 19% of women were executives in the C-Suite.


Research last year from Dr. Catherine Strong from Massey University in New Zealand found that although women were joining the junior ranks of newspaper journalism in almost equal numbers, few women made it to top management roles. 

This was not because women were not clever enough, or ambitious enough, or because we lack true news sense or are unwilling to put in the hours. But because women held different values and were actively rejecting the male-dominated, aggressive, and confrontational newsroom environments.

Feminism, it seems, has truly given women a choice. And when confronted with institutional stupidity, we choose to back ourselves and leave.

Does that really matter to newspaper companies? Hell, yes!

Figures pulled together by Time magazine show that in the United States, women control 80% of the health spending budget and 58% of the money spent online. In 47 of the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, single, childless women in their 20s earn more than their male counterparts.

Depending on whom you believe, women control between US$5.8 and US$7 TRILLION of purchasing power in the United States alone. 

And a Zenger Folkman study for HBR in 2011 (A study in leadership: women do it better than men) analysed 360 leadership effectiveness evaluations of more than 7,280 executives. The analysis revealed that women rated higher than men AT EVERY MANAGEMENT LEVEL. (Yes, because I am female and therefore over-emotional, I am using caps lock for emphasis.)

To newspaper companies grappling with the challenges of radically changing revenue models, the world in which we find ourselves today is one where women should – because of their numbers — dominate our readerships and where women are overwhelmingly attractive to advertisers because of their total dominance on the majority spending decisions.  

To newspaper companies struggling with the challenges of transformational business structure changes, women represent the bulk of the staff entering our companies, and possess greater management and leadership smarts to lead us to a bold new future.  

To summarise: There are now more of us, we’re smarter, and we control waaaayyy more of the money. Yet when it comes to driving media businesses, traditional cultural behaviour ensures we are still a minority and our industry “strategy” to deal with it is to let evolution do the work.

As an industry we are in the midst of a revolution on so many fronts. Why shouldn’t gender balance be part of the fight? But try to be proactive about this, and you are labelled “bossy.” Get upset by it, you’re “emotional.” Try to tick all the right boxes and you’re “too nice” to scrap it out at the top.

Is it any wonder we’re frustrated?

Addressing the cultural issues that prevent more women from going higher inside our organisations, and encourage too many to leave too early, is essential if newspapers themselves are not to become themselves quaint and anachronistic.

“Aggressive. Political. Self Important.” This could equally be the epitaph on the tombstone for the newspaper industry unless we become proactive about gender issues right now.

It’s time to man up to the idea that at the very least we need a rigorous debate. And not be frightened to fight like a girl. 

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