Friday, February 08, 2019

On Mean, Mean Political Bosses

The rumor-mill tells us that Senator Amy Klobuchar is a mean, mean boss.  A bitch, in fact.  I remember reading the same about Hillary Clinton in the past. 

On the other hand, we all know that Our Dear Leader, one Donald Trump, appears to be the boss from the hottest hell.  The difference between his case, and that of, say, Klobuchar, is that nobody attributes Trump's meanness to him being a man but just to his character.

This is not quite so true when we talk about possibly* mean female bosses.  Though the media coverage of such cases is currently a bit fairer than it was, not so long ago,  it is still extremely hard to evaluate the meanness of a boss without also taking into account what the underlings' expectations are.  Those expectations are likely to vary depending on whether the boss is a man or a woman.

In general, we still expect women to be kinder, gentler and more democratic bosses than men**. 

This matters.  Suppose that we have two bosses, one male and one female, who are objectively equally nasty.  But because the female boss is expected to be nicer, probably unconsciously, her nastiness looks more glaring, more hurtful and just plain nastier.

Several takes on Amy Klobuchar's possible bitchiness also mention surveys about the meanest bosses in the US Congress.  The variable that measures meanness in those surveys is staff turnover, and we are told that the departure of senior officials is weighted more than the departure of lower-level staff.

While the actual survey findings vary, depending on the time period, female politicians' offices are over-represented (compared to their percentages in the House and the Senate) among those with highest turnover figures over longer time periods.

These surveys have some problematic aspects:

For instance, an office could have a high turnover not only because underlings run away from a mean boss, but also because underlings leave to climb upward in various political organization. 

The former is what the surveys purport to measure, but they can also be measuring the latter.  Without knowing where those who depart are going and why they are leaving, we cannot really tell if a high turnover is due to a boss who is mean or a boss who is supportive of the underlings' career aspirations.  Or for some of the other reasons I discuss here.

Then there are the variations caused by the fact that a politician's staff turnover rate depends on where we are in that politician's term.  Though at least one of the articles I link to reminds us not to draw conclusions about the high last-year staff turnover rates of those politicians who are retiring, given that their staff all need to find new jobs, I also believe that slightly similar considerations might apply to the beginning of a politician's first term.

That's the time when politicians first meet all their new staff and when the staff meets the politicians, and neither side might know yet if the matches are good.  I would expect a greater first-year turnover, and then a much reduced turnover when the working arrangements have settled down and both sides know what to expect.

The surveys would be improved if they controlled for that time factor***. 

Ideally, they should also control for what happens when a politician faces a particularly difficult time, with scandals (real or created) or a fall in support and so on.  Many staff members might then depart, in order to save their own careers (the Trump effect?).  To the extent female politicians are judged along a harsher scale, in general, such difficult times could appear more common for them, and that could explain some part of any sex difference in the mean bosses surveys.

The above comments are examples of the kinds of variables we should control for before we draw any conclusions about whether men or women are worse political bosses.  That's because such comparisons should be between male and female politicians in as identical circumstances as possible.  If those circumstances are not identical, then what we attribute to gender might, in fact, have other causes.

I have no idea how or if those survey results would change with proper standardization.  Neither can I speculate on the possibility that because politics has not been an easy area for women to enter, those who in the past had the tremendous willpower and fighting spirit to have succeeded in it  might not be the least demanding of bosses at this stage of our societal evolution.

My main point is, rather, that unless we can control for the underlying and gendered expectations about how male and female bosses are supposed to behave, the net we use to fish for mean political bosses is also likely to catch not only the truly mean bosses, but also many female bosses who would not be deemed mean if they were male.  


* I use the qualifier "possibly" here not because I wouldn't believe that there are mean female bosses (there are), but because of the way we might use a different scale in measuring what "mean" means when it comes to female and male bosses.

As an aside, I believe that true meanness of the mean-boss type is not a sex-linked characteristic.

**  This comes about because of an interesting problem: 

The traditional gender stereotypes we apply to men do not clash with what is expected from being a leader, but the traditional gender stereotypes we apply to women do clash with what is expected from being a leader.  The latter means that women in leadership positions must walk a tightrope between not being found effective enough leaders and not being found properly feminine.

One way of solving that dilemma, probably unconsciously, is to start expecting that female leaders lead in more feminine ways, in more supportive and more maternal ways than male leaders.  One small-sample study found that women surveyed in the study expected female bosses to be more supportive and empathic than male bosses.

A maternal leadership style can work for some women.   But to expect it from all or most women may be the reason why female leaders who do not follow that style are very easily labeled as abrasive or mean bosses.

*** And if they carried out a few statistical significance tests about the differences between turnover rates.