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On the surface, the question of which sex you prefer your boss to be may seem absurd given that – presumably – most professionals yearn to be employed in a challenging, well-compensated role among intelligent and thoughtful co-workers. Yet, surprisingly, it's a preference that can be hard to shake.

I once hired a woman who expressed delight that she was finally getting the chance to work for another woman. Her response troubled me; I worried that she was entering our working relationship with all sorts of misconceptions about how "women" act as managers. Was I supposed to be softer? More understanding?

Posing the question "Would you prefer to work for a man or women" treads on dangerous territory. It insinuates that men and women fall into different stereotypical "types" as leaders. It also assumes that a terrible or wonderful manager is somehow representative of his or her entire sex.

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But like it or not (and I don't), many outwardly ask this question – or secretly maintain a preference – so the responses require closer examination.

A LinkedIn group for professional women recently asked its members, "Does it matter what gender your boss is?" and about 1,800 people, mainly women, responded. While 67 per cent said their manager's sex does not matter, 23 per cent acknowledged that they prefer a male boss. Only 5 per cent suggested they preferred working for a woman. Littered among the comments were anecdotes about female managers who were "petty" or "emotional" or focused on "personal agendas."

These results are consistent with a survey conducted by Emily Bennington, American author of Who Says It's a Man's World. Ms. Bennington asked more than 750 female executives "Would you rather work for, a man or a woman?" and drew some troubling insights. While 56 per cent said their manager's sex didn't matter, 32 per cent said they would elect to work for a man if given a choice, and only 11 per cent would choose a woman. That's a 3-to-1 margin in favour of a male manager – a daunting result for those advocating a more gender-enlightened work force.

That survey found that women who preferred male bosses said it was because they were more direct and less competitive, and because women were "too emotional." The participants who would choose their boss based on sex felt that men were less competitive and less emotional than women.

"Respondents felt that men were simply more direct in their communications. In the comments part of this question, I would see things like 'men are no-nonsense' or 'men are to-the-point,' over and over again," Ms. Bennington saod. She noted that women were also dinged for making too much small talk before asking for what they wanted.

Reassuringly, views on this issue of whom one prefers to work for seems to be evolving. Gallup, the polling company, has been posing the question since the 1950s and while more Americans still prefer a male boss, the gap in the 2011 survey hit its lowest point yet (32 per cent preferred male managers; 22 per cent would prefer to work for a woman). (Gallup also found, perhaps not surprisingly, that the sex of a person's current boss weighed heavily in the answer of who would preferred for the next manager.)

"The bottom line is that the 'pink ghetto' is not entirely a thing of the past, and that both genders are responsible and culpable for keeping that alive and thriving," said Tanya Raheel, a Toronto-based coach at Discover Your Awesome, a program for men and women trying to figure out the next step in their career. "Women managers are not seen as managers first. They are seen as women first, and often not through the most positive lens," she added.

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Ms. Raheel attributes some of this bias to demographics; she believes younger people bring a refreshing view of gender neutrality to the workplace compared with older employees. Cultural backgrounds also play a role in determining these preferences.

Julia Richardson, associate professor of organizational behaviour at Toronto's York University, recalls an MBA student she taught at New Zealand's University of Otago. The student, an indigenous Maori, said he could never have a female mentor or work for a female manager because his cultural background would not support it. While this had no bearing on his perception of women's abilities, he couldn't shed his cultural framework.

While many might find his stance to be socially unacceptable, Ms. Richardson supports her former student's honesty. Before judging him, she suggests you look at your own biases that come into play in day-to-day life.

"Why do some of us prefer to have a particular gender for a particular service?" she asked. It's an interesting question to keep in mind the next time you request a female doctor or a male hairdresser.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.

E-mail: Twitter: @femmeonomics

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