The Society for Personality and Social Psychology published an interesting study in 2015 regarding male behavior with female and male bosses. The behavior was negotiating salary and splitting a bonus, and use a tool called an implicit threat measure to evaluate levels of subtle bias and feelings of threat that a subject might be unwilling to admit. In the study, men appeared to behave more aggressively toward women bosses in negotiating salary, and their implicit threat measures showed that they were feeling under attack. The single difference in the study was the gender of the boss.

These studies have been replicated in various workplaces and with a variety of ages of men and women, and in locations across the world. It appears that even men who might intellectually feel that they support gender equality in the workplace still feel some degree of emotional discomfort with changing gender roles. Men can feel threatened by female bosses. When they feel threatened, they act differently that they do when they are not feeling threatened.

How do female leaders manage this issue? It’s hardly a secret to any woman that men can feel threatened in the workplace, and the way different people express feelings of threat are quite varied and subtle and may even be unconscious.

Female leaders assume archetypal roles to manage conflict and threat in the workplace, and those archetypal roles are dictated in part by the personality of the leader and in part by the expectations of the workplace.

Here are just some of the archetypes that might be assumed, either consciously or unconsciously;

  • Female leaders within the military take on the role of Heroes. They don’t ask anyone to do anything they can’t do themselves. They are the first in the door in the morning and the last to leave at night. They head into battle, whatever battle, at the head of the troops with a weapon raised. That archetypal leader has a weight and power within the military, but is less effective where there are not battles to be won.
  • The Ice Queen keeps everyone at arm’s length and demands that emotion, softness, weakness, and anything pink will not sabotage her workplace. She demands more of herself than the rest of the group, but does not indulge in the community of the workplace. The Ice Queen believes tears are just like blood in the water to a group of circling sharks. Her workplace is full of sharks.
  • The Good Mother is the nurturing boss, the one who hugs and gets to know all about the kids and brings homemade vegan cookies into the break room. She knows that the world is a cruel place full of people who feel threatened and she just wants everyone to be happy and get along. She will deal with a person who feels threatened by soothing and petting and setting up a mother-son personal dynamic.

The problem with archetypes of any kind is they are coats of social and gender role expectation we put on when we need them. They do not have the depth and weight and creative complexity of real people. But they are roles we understand and can use when faced with threat, even the very subtle and unconscious threat that bias brings into the workplace.

The issue moving forward is not for women to learn new archetypes of leadership or successful boss behavior.

We should not spend all this energy trying to figure out how to act in the workplace. We should just be our competent selves and get some work done. The issue that needs to be resolved is the unconscious gender bias that still exists in the world, and the aggressive behavior and risk of violence that exist as a result of those feelings of threat.

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