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Like hurricanes, female bosses can be as tough as males

15 June 2014

Hurricanes kill more than 200 people in the US every year. And it seems some of those deaths are happening because we misjudge a hurricane’s potential for damage – especially when they are named after women.

When scientists reviewed actual hurricane fatalities for all storms that made landfall in the US from 1950-2012 they found that the more feminine the storm’s name, the more people it killed.

In their recently published article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they even conclude that changing a severe hurricane’s name from a masculine one to a feminine one could nearly triple its death toll.

In judging the intensity of a storm, “people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave,” said Sharon Shavitt, a co-author of the report.

So, gender bias can be very damaging. That was also the position a lot of people took when two very high profile, very senior editors lost their jobs last month, and both of them were women.

I was in New York on Thursday May 15 when The New York Times carried stories of both the departures; one of their own, Jill Abramson, and one, Natalie Nougayrède, the editor of Le Monde.

One of them, the paper said, had been criticised “for a top-down management style and an inability to build consensus”. The other one (in a different article on a different page) as “polarising and mercurial”.

And? My understanding is that both hurricanes and editors are bloody tough, regardless of sex. But just as people expect female hurricanes to be gentler, I suspect they expect that of female bosses too.

People of either sex don’t get appointed to senior managerial positions on newspapers without having been world-class journalists along the way (on Le Monde, the editor is elected by their colleagues from a small number of people nominated by the paper’s owners). And from my observation you don’t become a world class journalist without having to, along the way, take some tough decisions, and polarise people. As for a “top-down” management style, what else are you expected to do as a boss, especially when you have to propel organisations towards change to future-proof them?

The NYT reported that defenders of Ms Nougayrède said she had received “far more hard criticism than a man would for demanding changes at the paper”. And a friend of Ms Abramson was quoted saying she was “a forceful and fearless advocate”. And that “not everyone is going to like that, but it’s what makes her one of the most talented journalists of our times”.

It seems that the traits we respect in others when they are journalists (or fixed income salesmen, headhunters, or anyone for that matter) are suddenly unpalatable when they become bosses – more so when they are women.

Perhaps we expect they will operate as “one of the people” because they were “one of the people”. And when they don’t, it is a shock and then there is all hell to pay.

Ms Abramson and Ms Nougayrède were partially victims of unconscious bias. Just like those people who walk out into a female-named storm.

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