The white paper, Queen Bee Syndrome; The Real Reason Women Do Not Promote Women, by Sophia Zhao and Maw-Der Foo (real names, I promise you), begins simply enough. “The lack of women leaders, especially senior women leaders, has triggered much discussion globally. While more women than men are university graduates in 97 of 145 major and emerging countries worldwide, women make up the majority of skilled workers in only 68 of those countries and are the majority of leaders in only four countries. Moreover, women currently hold only 4 per cent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies.”
We know this. The stats are familiar. Perhaps we have even chanted them. There is a perpetual tapering off of women from the bottom as they head towards the top. Study upon papers upon research has said so. Several reasons exist. One of the things that has been mentioned as the cause has been the lack of support by women at the top to subordinates. There is a name for this. The Queen Bee Syndrome. Queen Bees, in case you are wondering, are basically grown-up and more calculating Mean Girls.
You would imagine solidarity would be at the root of female interaction in the workplace, especially one that is typically male-dominated. It ain’t so. Women are increasingly enrolling for bachelor’s degrees at a pace outnumbering the men. The number in senior management is steadily growing, and more women are getting appointed to boards. But, don’t rejoice just yet. Women are still underrepresented in the C-Suite. Fortune 500 companies reflect this. The percentage of women at higher managerial positions only compose 5 per cent of CEOs as of 2016 with 20 per cent of women as board members.
Being the Queen Bee, not to be confused with THE Queen Bey, is a bad, bad thing not just for other women. It eats away at the organisation. When women in senior positions – sometimes referred to as Alphas – the white paper continues to say, “bully subordinates and obstruct other women’s career advancement,” such women “are seen as selfish, insensitive, and power hungry. If a senior woman leader has a reputation as a queen bee, women in less senior positions often are advised to avoid working with her.”
Queen Bee Syndrome: A Modern Dilemma of Working Women and Its Effects on Turnover Intentions by Elif Baykal, Erkan Soyalp, and Rahime Yeşil shows just how much of an indictment this is of women in positions of power. It breeds an uncomfortable work environment because it is viewed as an abuse of power. Alpha women, research reveals, prefer interacting with fellow high-ranking women. They are less likely to spend time with their subordinates. Women at the top of the food chain would also rather be described as possessing masculine traits such as being more career-oriented and rational as opposed to being perceived as emotional. Such women do not identify themselves with other women and distance themselves by focusing more on their careers. This tends to happen in environments where gender inequality is embedded as a practice. And, unsurprisingly, it sends women walking right out the door.
Queen Bees tend to promote or mentor other men as opposed to fellow women and tend to perceive younger women as threats. This gets in the way of sponsorship as well. The junior females suffer poor leadership seeing how they do not have an advocate in the boardroom or in the presence of power. In turn, this impacts job satisfaction and creates conflict because the Queen Bee rips apart the harmony. In turn, this creates an environment where diversity does not thrive. Unexpectedly, employees exposed to the Queen Bee reported more anger, sadness and anxiety than they would with a neutral leader.
The Queen Bee Syndrome has a lot of academic support. First documented in 1973, defined by C. Tavris, G.L. Staines, and T.E. Jayaratne, it offers up an explanation as to why women find it more stressful working for a female boss than a male boss. One of the first studies in South Africa was in 2011. It explores the Queen Bee, finding her present in corporate environments that are traditionally male-dominated. Carol Anne Travis, however, says she regrets ever coining “such a catchy phrase” to describe very complex patterns in a world without a corresponding term describing such male behaviour.
Here is the thing.
Some consider the Queen Bee Syndrome a myth. For starters, a survey by American think tank, Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) showed that having women in the C-suite actually increases net margins by a significant amount because companies with more female executives make more money. In 2020, only 37 Fortune 500 CEOs were women, a number considered as being an all-time high.
Signs of a Queen Bee include but are not limited to isolating subordinates, refusing to acknowledge a subordinate woman or give her due credit, creating a hostile or competitive work environment, and making others feel inferior.
Women are expected to be helpful and warm, and if they are anything but, says The Conversation in The Immortal – And False – Myth Of The Workplace Queen Bee state they are perceived negatively. Where men as managers are seen as strong leaders, women are seen as problematic. Context matters. The article, like the white paper, does not dispute the existence of the Queen Bee. Instead, they attribute it to a “reaction to marginalisation.” It continues “When organisations are not inclusive, women are more likely to experience value threat and therefore more likely to avoid supporting other women.”
What then, is the solution?
In a survey of 350 executives, Sophia Zhao and Maw-Der Foo found two very doable solutions. “What we need to do is to nurture an environment where men and women are treated equally. When we have more women in the system, especially in the higher echelons of the organisation, a women leader advocating for other women will no longer be seen as favouritism or nepotism.”
Another part of the solution relies on what creates the context in the first place. Building a diverse and inclusive work environment. Men need to do this because when they champion diversity and inclusion, they are not penalised. “In fact… male leaders who demonstrate diversity-valuing behaviours were perceived as being more competent and received higher performance ratings. Involving men in the diversity campaign can prove to be a win-win for all.”
This article was originally published in the August 2022 edition of CIO Africa magazine.