It's not unlikely that you'll have a male boss at work. That's because, frankly, most leaders are men — and, until women are promoted into leadership positions or until their business ideas are successfully funded, more men than women will continue to lead our companies and the gender gap in leadership will persist.
So what can you expect with a male boss as a female employee? Ideally: a very typical workplace relationship that involves mutual respect, opportunities for growth and development, constructive feedback and an empowering experience that teaches you skills you need to advance your career.
After all, most people report that they prefer to work with a male boss.
In 1953, Gallup asked Americans, "If you were taking a new job and had your choice of a boss, would you prefer to work for a man or a woman?" At that time decades ago, two-thirds of Americans said that they preferred to work for a male boss. Meanwhile, 5% said that they preferred to work for a female boss, and 25% reported that it made no difference to them. Fast forward to 2019, and Gallup asked Americans the same question. The researchers found that, today, one-third of Americans would prefer a male boss, while 20% said they would prefer a female boss, and 46% say that it doesn't make a difference to them. The same study suggests that female bosses are more engaging than male bosses, and perhaps that's why more and more people want to work with women. But, while women are more likely than men to say that they would prefer a female boss, women are still more likely to prefer a male boss overall — and women are still struggling to stem the tides in rising to leadership roles because of it.
While many people then prefer to work with men, in less-than-ideal situations with male bosses, here are five ways to navigate your workplace relationship.
1. Set clear expectations upfront.
Set clear expectations for the job before you start the job. Know exactly what's expected of you — and have it in writing. Studies show that workplace performance reviews can be sexist in that they're vague and not super helpful for women more than men.
In fact, researchers wrote in the Harvard Business Review that they have come to see performance evaluations as both a "symptom of" and a "cause for" women’s underrepresentation in the upper tiers of business. It’s a symptom because the evasive evaluations of women’s work may reflect managers’ unconsciously biased sense that women are not, in fact, "leaders with measurable accomplishments." And it’s considered a cause because the lack of valuable, constructive feedback to women makes improvement and advancement in the workplace a nearly impossible feat for women who won't know where they need to improve and cannot measure their success with such vague expectations.
You want to be able to have a clear job description to compare your performance against in your reviews so that you have an easier time negotiating for a raise or promotion and, overall, getting the credit and respect that you deserve.
2. Negotiate fair pay.
Negotiate for fair pay early on — during the interview process. Research suggests that many fields underpay women — especially male-dominated fields. So understand the standard salary for your position well before going into your interview. Know what you deserve, and propose what you think is a fair salary. You can use salary calculators and tools like Dice’s Salary Calculator, Salary.com’s Salary Comparison and Glassdoor’s Know Your Worth to give you estimates of your value as a professional based on several factors like your title, location, your years of experience and more. Remember that you can always counter an offer — here's how to negotiate salary in your next interview by doing your homework, choosing the right time to speak up and revving yourself up to negotiate.
3. Set personal boundaries.
Keep your workplace relationship with your boss professional. If you're wondering, 'Can a boss have a relationship with an employee?' the likely answer is no. Of course, workplace relationships occur all the time, but they are difficult to navigate and can be messy. You're probably also wondering, 'Can you get fired for having a relationship at work?' The answer is, sometimes, yes. Depending on the company policy, you can be fired for having a workplace relationship.
So, can you be friends with your boss? Absolutely! It's totally fine to form a friendship with your boss and, if you spend a lot of time with this person, it's likely that you will become friends. But always maintain professionalism with your boss as you want to be taken seriously in the workplace. This means that, yes, you can enjoy happy hours with them and talk with them outside of the workplace if this is how your relationship is (and it's comfortable for the both of you), but you need to be aware of the other person's boundaries and set your own personal boundaries so as to not cross any lines.
4. Seek out mentorship.
Wondering, 'How can I improve my boss-employee relationship?' Seek out mentorship. Research suggests that women can benefit from professional private conversations with senior staff, like your male boss who can serve as a mentor, sponsor and, overall, an advocate for you in the workplace. After all, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and chief executive of the Center for Talent Innovation, which studied sponsorship, told The New York Times that sponsorships are crucial for “getting from the middle to the top.”
5. Do your best work.
At the end of the day, all you can do is your best. So make sure that you do your work well and put your best foot forward when it comes to your career. If you end up having a toxic relationship with your boss (who might be a micromanager or who might be M.I.A. or who might be subtly sexist), you can rest assured that you did everything you could on your end in order to get your job done well. After all, your job isn't to make friends or build relationships, it's simply to do the work you were hired to do.