The alpha female

The plight of the alpha female: why women say they prefer working for men

Sandy Burgham Diversity & inclusion, Leadership, Organizational culture Leave a Comment

Recently a colleague was relaying a conversation she’d had with another woman regarding how they both prefer working for male CEOs. She and her friend had both experienced working for male and female bosses. “We were just saying that female CEOs are always having to prove themselves… the trouble with alpha females …… they have something to prove …and they show their insecurity” she bemoaned.

While I like to think I am a good listening ear, I cut her short. In fact, to be honest, I might have even talked over her and started womansplaining what was going on. Over the years I have heard many women assert their preference working for men rather than women and I felt the need to recalibrate the conversation.

Breaking down the leadership stereotype

The problem is not that the CEO is female. Rather it is what people think women need to do and be to get to the top in the business world. In short, the problem is the invisibility of the system in which all of this plays out. I am not just talking about patriarchy, that capitalist hierarchy in which only a few hold power at the top.

I am talking about the types of people that tend to ascend in this model and what becomes the social norm for what a leader looks like. And inevitably, I am also talking about women who are unconsciously – and often consciously – complicit in reinforcing specific modes of leadership that have masculinized traits associated with what it takes to get ahead.

To keep the system going at a pace that ensures the wheels of industry don’t slow down, (I mean we all need to eat right?), those that dominate – male or female – have more task-oriented controlling tendencies that manifest as ambitious, driven, and autocratic behavior.

They can also be a little arrogant and critical at times, although these characteristics can be seen as “calling a spade a spade”/ ”telling it like it is”/ ”really backing their own decisions”. Especially if they are male. Phew, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief that someone looks as though they know what they are doing.

This does not necessarily mean that they are better leaders; they just demonstrate the kinds of qualities that look like leadership and of course suit the patriarchy. Do some women have these qualities? Sure do! In fact, you’re reading this piece written by one. I have certainly been called an alpha in the past but would like to think that as I have matured my ambition and drive are balanced out by other more people-oriented qualities as well.

The alpha double standard

But when you combine these ‘leadership’ characteristics with norms around gender, things get interesting. These behaviors are masculinized, meaning associated with male genitalia. So, if these behaviors are exhibited by people with the other set of genitalia (not that we actually have seen those bits; they are subconsciously imagined or assumed) a strange thing occurs. The system is upset. Many perceive it as ‘not seeming right’, or at least just a little abnormal. As a consequence, those women who do ascend tend to face harsher judgement, not just from men, but also from other women.

I have heard women use the term ‘alpha male’ with disdain: “oh god he’s such an alpha male”. The alpha female also faces disdain, but behind closed doors gets a rougher ride than her male counterpart. There is an imagined lack of humor, a inferred insecurity. What is seen as strength in an alpha male is often interpreted as something else entirely in the alpha female.

If they are partnered, their spouses are considered poor, hapless, and emasculated – think Denis Thatcher. If the alpha female doesn’t have kids, well what does that tell you?: “poor choice lady, all you care about is yourself and your career.” Or perhaps there is a tendency react smugly; this proves that indeed women cannot have it all. And if she does have kids there is obviously a risk that she might be spoiling, or even neglecting, her offspring. Interestingly, alpha males with kids do not suffer the same scrutiny.

If the female leader is an introvert, she might be insecure or cold. Or if she’s an extrovert, she’s just trying too hard and can be overbearing. And if she has high expectations of her team she’s a ball-buster or a bitch. While she may be nice “when you get to know her”, nobody seems to care if alpha males are nice or not, because “it’s just how alpha males are”, enough said. Being an alpha male, despite the eye-rolling, is still a laudable status in our current system.

So you don’t want to work for a woman?

Next time you are bemoaning working for a female boss, or indeed criticizing a female leader, look in the mirror. What are the unconscious bias and beliefs you have driving these judgements?

Might you actually think that home is a natural place for women. Does female genitalia come with a homing device directing it to a kitchen rather than a boardroom?

Do you think that women are insecure and more likely to have “imposter syndrome”? ….Rubbish. They are just more used to being in conversations where this is seen as normal for females. And anyway, who could blame them for feeling like an imposter? The system wasn’t made for them.

Or do you simply think it’s not right for women to behave the same way as the men who hold similar positions? Does the idea make you uncomfortable? Even in 2018?

We don’t have enough female CEOs. Being critical of the few female leaders we have because of their gender is not helping.  Men and women have foibles. No-one’s perfect.  But bemoaning a leader because she is a female CEO shows that she is not the problem… you are.

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