Do Women Make Better Bosses — And Whistleblowers?

Elle publisher Carol Smith tells the Times why women make better bosses — and explodes a bunch of gender stereotypes in the process. But is she also creating new ones?

Smith (pictured at center, looking weirdly like a friendlier Anna Wintour) says that as managers, "hands down women are better. There's no contest." It's good to hear, especially in light of last year's study purporting to show that women have more problems with female bosses. Smith elaborates,

In my experience, female bosses tend to be better managers, better advisers, mentors, rational thinkers. Men love to hear themselves talk. I'm so generalizing. I know I am. But in a couple of places I've worked, I would often say, "Call me 15 minutes after the meeting starts and then I'll come," because I will have missed all the football. I will have missed all the "what I did on the golf course." I will miss the four jokes, and I can get into the meeting when it's starting.

Sure, she's generalizing, but her generalizations fly in the face of the idea that women are always chatting with each other instead of getting things done, and so they're kind of refreshing. She also says she's "a really good confronter," and that female bosses, "if we have a problem - again, as a generalization - we will confront the problem and deal with it head-on." She explains:

Confrontation - meaning, "You didn't do a good job. That presentation was bad. It didn't work, and here's why it didn't work" - is so much better than walking away from a sales call saying, "Great. Got to get back to the office, O.K.?" It's better for everyone and I've never understood why people won't do it.

Smith does seem, in general, to tell it like it is. In a February interview, Lauren Streib of Forbes asked her, "Do you anticipate Elle's advertising growth to continue?" Smith said bluntly,

No. That's easy. Who's growing? Where's the growth? Even Google's not growing.

And of fashion mags in general, she said,

Our spring was down 22%. I expect full year to be down 15%. I do not think we will recover for the fall. My fall issue closes right in June, and I feel as if retailers are going to keep their inventories down, which means cash is going to be limited. Bottom line: You won't see those big fat issues for a while. There are too many magazines; there are probably too many fashion brands right now. Talk about survival of the fittest.

Recent news indicates that women may actually be better confronters, especially of harsh economic realities. In a piece for Double X, Moe writes about Sheila Bair, "the only government regulator in either administration who can credibly claim to have seen the [financial] crisis coming," and about Meredith Whitney, who "declared Citigroup effectively insolvent in October 2007." Moe writes,

Whitney not only knew when the bust was coming and that Citi would be first to fall-"Hubris is the cause of management mistakes 90 percent of the time," she told Business Week in 2007-she actually had seen it coming two years before, and written about it in a comprehensive October 2005 report on the coming recession. Back then she predicted the economic downturn would be spurred by banks extending "new and unprecedented access to credit" to a swath of Americans living just above poverty level.

What tipped Whitney off? Hurricane Katrina. She said in 2006,

So many Americans saw a side of the U.S. economy that I don't think many of us had seen before or had really digested. It challenged me to drill down deeper into the analysis of who was at risk in terms of any type of consumer softening, or a potential recession.

Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins has an explanation for why women were the first to speak out about the impending financial crisis. Moe writes that there's "a distinction between the types of risk one takes with encouragement from an audience, and the types of risk one takes in spite of the disapproval of the audience. Watkins calls these 'arena risk' and 'moral risk.' Women, she contends, are more likely to take the latter form of plunge." That is, women may be more likely to speak up in times when doing so has no direct benefit to them, when they may even incur kill-the-messenger wrath.

Moe cites a scientific study to back this up, and all makes women look pretty good — apparently, we're the ones who shout "stop!" when everyone's heading over a cliff, rather than cheerfully gunning the engine. But as a commenter points out, this may not be that fun. P Starling writes,

Look, even if it's true, let's keep it quiet. The idea of woman as moral arbiter is great in theory but in practice has gotten us the unenviable job of, say, being the desire-free sexual gatekeepers or the pedestal-dwelling Angel of the House. Can we just ignore the question of whether or not women are more ethical and focus instead on whether or not women tend to show better insight into long-term outcomes?

Being the ones responsible for taking "moral risks" also means women get all the "disapproval of the audience" and none of the "encouragement." And there's the added problem of whether their warnings are even taken seriously. I already mentioned Cassandra once today, but I'll do it again — a lot of good her "moral risk" did her or Troy. So while it's nice to think of women as being great at confronting difficult situations head-on, the more we bash men for being unable to do this, the more we claim this unenviable responsibly for ourselves.

No Doubts: Women Are Better Managers [NY Times]
Why Corporate Women Are More Likely To Blow The Whistle [Double X]
How Smith Keeps Elle Glossy [Forbes]

Earlier: Working For A Female Boss Can Be A Real Bitch