By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/8/2007 1:10:25 PM ET 2007-03-08T18:10:25

Hillary Clinton might want to sit up and pay attention to results of our exclusive survey on attitudes in the workplace.

While Clinton hopes to smash through the ultimate glass ceiling to become the nation's first female president, the Work & Power Survey conducted by Elle and MSNBC.com suggests that stereotypes about sex and leadership are alive and well.

While more than half our 60,000 respondents said a person's sex makes no difference to leadership abilities, most who expressed a preference said men are more likely to be effective leaders.

Of male respondents, 41 percent said men are more likely to be good leaders, and 33 percent of women agreed. And three out of four women who expressed a preference said they would rather work for a man than a woman.

The survey, conducted early this year, found a bonanza of stereotypes among those polled, with many using the optional comment section to label women "moody," "bitchy," "gossipy" and "emotional." The most popular term for woman, used 347 times, was "catty."

There are still few women in the corner office today, and the numbers appear to be declining. Our survey sheds light on one obstacle blocking women from the boardroom: negative attitudes about women leaders — attitudes women themselves still harbor.

“One cannot live in a sexist society without absorbing some of those messages, which make women feel worse about themselves and suspicious of other women," said Janet Lever, a professor of sociology at California State University in Los Angeles, who helped conceive the survey. "The enemy is omnipresent cultural messages, not women themselves."

There are long-established attributes that are assigned to men and women, says Madeline E. Heilman, an expert on workplace sex bias and professor of psychology at New York University. Women take care of others and nurture, while men are seen as taking charge and being assertive. The problem is, she says, when we map these attributes onto the workplace the male attributes are much more sought after.

“I call this the lack of fit,” she explains, because the perceived attributes of women don’t fit the leadership mold. “When women succeed in areas they’re not supposed to they are disapproved of greatly, by everyone, men and women.”

Indeed, our survey found that about 33 percent of men and women would rather work for a man, while about 13 percent would prefer working for a woman. (The remaining 54 percent had no preference.)

And when asked who would be more likely to lead effectively, males were preferred by more than a 2-1 margin by both men and women — even though women got high marks for being problem solvers and providing more supportive work environments.

Will men and women ever see beyond these ingrained beliefs and accept women as conductors on the career express? It’s all about preconceived notions of the leader image, says Claire Babrowski, the former CEO of RadioShack. When people close their eyes and visualize the top dogs sitting around the corporate table, she explains, “We picture men in leadership roles. As a woman you already have this hurdle to overcome.”

Julie Fasone Holder, a corporate vice president for Dow Chemical, remembers a hallway conversation in the 1980s after she and another woman were promoted. A male executive said to Fasone, “I guess it’s women’s promotion week.” The way he said it, she says, “was I was being promoted because I was a women, not a great leader.”

And even though Fasone says things have gotten better for women, she adds: “Women still face stereotypes. We’ve come a ways, but I wouldn’t say we’ve arrived.”

Some executives said attitudes are changing, if slowly.

"A lot of these differences are intergenerational," says Erroll B. Davis Jr., former CEO of Alliant Energy, and now chancellor of the University System of Georgia. "The first generation of female managers decided the way to the top was to out-macho the men. A second generation is better trained and is doing better."

Davis, who is black, say women and minorities face many of the same obstacles.

"Is it harder for women and minorities? Yes, but you deal with it and try and put yourself in a position to make it easier for those behind you. You can't spend a lot of time fixating on it."

Women overwhelmingly agree, with 71 percent of female bosses saying they have to work harder and be smarter than men to achieve the same level of success.

“It’s harder for woman to advance, and every woman has to prove herself more than a man does," said Linda Alepin, founding director of the Global Women's Leadership Network.

So women are stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to be ambitious without overdoing it. According to our study, women don’t want to come off too confident and aggressive for fear of being labeled bitchy. But they also don’t want to be wishy-washy or risk being called indecisive or emotional.

“In our society, leadership has been coded as masculine,” says Deborah M. Kolb, the Deloitte Ellen Gabriel Professor for Women and Leadership at the Simmons School of Management and author of "Her Place at the Table: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiating the Five Key Challenges to Leadership Success." “To be a leader you have to be decisive and take charge. That fits fine for men, but when women do it they get labeled.”

Kolb doesn’t think people’s negative attitudes about women have anything to do with their abilities. She points to many surveys that show women are on par with men when it comes to leadership attributes. Unfortunately, she adds, in most surveys, including ours, women are not seen as having the same leadership potential as men.

One of the reasons women might not be getting their leadership props is because there are still so few women in high level positions throughout the work world. “Familiarity is a powerful force,” says Karissa Thacker, a management psychologist and president of Strategic Performance Solutions Inc.  “We are much more familiar with men in leadership roles.  The unknown scares all of us regardless of gender."

Almost any woman leader has a story to tell about how she wasn’t always taken seriously, even as they reached the pinnacles of their careers.

Just a few weeks ago, Kathleen Waldron, president of Baruch College at the City University of New York, says she was in front of a group of people ready to tell them about a generous financial gift the college had received.

“I said to the assembled crowd that ‘I have an announcement to make,’ and someone yelled out, ‘You're pregnant!’ This is 2007 and I’m 58 years old,” she added incredulously. “I think people take liberties with women leaders that they won’t with men.”

Waldron, who worked in corporate America for 15 years, says the main obstacle she faced when dealing with men and women who had never worked for a female boss was that her employees weren’t sure she was going to be powerful enough to help them in their careers.

The numbers in our survey bear that out.

Among those polled a greater number said they were very confident they could rise through the ranks if they had a male boss, compared with those who had female bosses.

Tom Glocer, CEO of Reuters, said that finding was easily explainable by the fact the women have been historically under-represented in the upper echelons of management, so men are more likely to be "the ones in power who can influence careers."

He said board members share that historical bias, a fact that "sometimes keeps women from advancing to the top job."

"I think women are every bit as good if not better bosses than men," he said.

There are some glimmers of hope.  About 54 percent of those polled in our survey said they didn’t care if their boss was a man or a woman. And when individuals actually had experience working for a female boss, their preference for a women leader went up slightly. Younger workers 18 to 29 appeared to have a higher preference for female chiefs than those 30 and up, possibly pointing to a generational change.

Change also will come if women become better advocates for each other, says Liz Cornish, author of "Hit the Ground Running: The Woman's Guide to Success for the First 100 Days on the Job," who wasn’t surprised at the many women in our survey who were critical of female bosses.

“I think that women, part of our DNA, is we have an inner critic,” Cornish says. “When we see other women be successful it causes us to feel even worse of our inability to rise to our own potential. Therefore we want to bring that other person back down to our level.”

But the bottom line is it’s not just about women playing nice. It’s about general attitudes of women as chieftains throughout the population, and those attitudes won’t die easily, says Brendan Burnett-Stohner, a vice chairman for Christian & Timbers, global executive recruitment firm.

Even women who have risen to unprecedented career heights end up with big targets on their heads, she says.  Hewlett-Packard's former CEO Carly Fiorina "is a prime example of a woman that got sabotaged,” she says. “I imagine the board got tired of her talking back to them and said, ‘Let's find someone who can understand us and uses sports analogies.’ ”

With all these obstacles, it’s important to look at how the few women that have made it to the top were able to navigate the bumpy path. I interviewed many high-level executive women for my book "From the Sandbox to the Corner Office," and the one theme among all of them was they didn’t let naysayers stand in their way.

Fran Keeth, the CEO of Shell Chemical, told me she faced the good ol’ boys network, but she kept hammering away. Her plan was to do the best job she could and do it with a persistent smile. While she admittedly gritted her teeth at times when men didn’t take her seriously and excluded her from conversations. “It took some doing to get myself accepted and earn my spurs. I became accepted, but I was not really one of them.”

So is there any hope for Hillary?

One quote from a male that took our survey points to an uphill battle:

“As liberated as I consider myself to be, I think I’d have a problem taking orders from a woman.”

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