In exploring the reasons why women are not proportionally represented in the upper ranks of business (the “pyramid problem”), some have pointed to women themselves. They note that women can be catty, sabotage each other or simply not extend a hand to other women through mentoring. The metaphor of the “Queen Bee” is often used to describe women who prefer being the only woman at the top and have little interest in having other women join them there.
A recent Catalyst report characterizes the Queen Bee as a myth and concludes that women generally support and mentor other women—and benefit from doing so. This optimistic report, though, acknowledges that all women are not “paying it forward.” Let’s examine the phenomenon a bit so we can help stamp out what’s left of this phenomenon—and make the Queen Bee extinct! Gender diversity in leadership is good for business. And women won’t reach the upper ranks of business in sufficient numbers to deliver the upsides without the full support of their own.
In my book, I devote an entire appendix to the topic of women working with women. I celebrate the positive side—that women support and champion each other. And I try to shed light on the negative side—which includes “Queen Bees” behavior. Shedding light on causes of this behavior among women in the workplace is meant to help those remaining Queen Bees become self-aware, change their behaviors and support other women.
What is a Queen Bee? Queen Bees claim more affinity with men than women and distance themselves from other women. They say things like, “I prefer working with men.” They see themselves as “special” and enjoy the honor of being the first or only woman at an upper level of the organizational hierarchy. Having reached it, they pull up the ladder behind them, maintaining that honor by withholding support for other women. Often a Queen Bee got to her position without having women role models or mentors. Rather than reach out a hand to help other women, she figures other women can make a solo climb, too.
Why would women do this? One study suggested that, when there are very few women at the executive level, they get compared to one another, leading to competition; it concluded that women in leadership want to avoid being seen as favoring women (and overcompensate?). A 2009 article titled “Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work” concluded that, while men are equal opportunity saboteurs, cutting down both men and women, women are more likely to sabotage and bully other women at work (perhaps because they are more vulnerable targets?).
I think that Queen Bees are generally simply unaware. They are one of the first women to succeed and may simply not have thought about the benefit of having more women at the leadership level–and their own role in helping other women get there. Or they may simply be juggling work and family and not recognize the importance of making time to get to know, mentor and sponsor other women. They may not know the business value of gender diversity in leadership. They may not know the strengths of feminine as well as masculine ways of working.
I am delighted to see evidence of the decline in the Queen Bee population. May the focus on this issue and awareness of their own unconscious behavior convert them all to champions for qualified women! Businesses will thank them for helping capture the upsides of gender diversity in leadership.