Is the ‘queen bee syndrome’ derailing diversity in the C-suite?

Women in mid-level positions lament the lack of support from female senior leaders, but one report says it’s not about selfishness or fear of competition

Is the ‘queen bee syndrome’ derailing diversity in the C-suite?

The topic of gender diversity in the workplace has garnered much attention of late with study after study reporting that despite strides taken in having more women in the workforce, there is still much to be done.

One such report examined the phenomenon of ‘the queen bee syndrome’, the idea that women executives do not support or promote women in mid-level managerial positions.

“For mid-career leaders, especially women, a big challenge is that, the senior women leaders who have broken the glass ceiling do not sponsor, promote, or support their career advancement,” said Sophia Zhao, senior research faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and Maw-Der Foo, associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Those senior women who do not advocate other women are sometimes called “queen bees”, conjuring up images of female bosses who bully subordinates. 

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.

However, in their paper, Queen Bee Syndrome: The real reason women do not promote women, the authors prove that there’s more to their behaviour than plain selfishness.

In a study using CCL data, Foo and others examined the relationship between ‘diversity-valuing behaviours’ as rated by executive leaders’ peers and their performance and competency as rated by their bosses.

These behaviours include understanding and respecting cultural, religious, gender, and racial differences as well as being comfortable hiring and managing people from diverse backgrounds.

It was found that women who hold senior leadership roles are often penalised for exhibiting these behaviours in the form of lower competency and performance ratings while male leaders’ ratings went up or remained the same.

The same thing was observed when the scenario was adapted to hiring decisions; a male leader’s ratings were not affected regardless of their stance on diversity while a female leader’s ratings went down considerably when they advocated for the hiring of female managers, despite considering the candidates’ capabilities.

One reason they gave for this phenomenon was because “in a male-dominated environment, advocating diversity highlighted women’s demographic characteristics and activated the negative stereotype that they are incompetent and/or nepotistic”.

The authors suggested three ways to address the issue:
1)    Be aware of gender bias. Awareness is a crucial step towards correcting the problem, so, pause before spreading the queen bee rumor.
2)    Examine the context. Recent research discovered that more women fill senior positions when there’s a female chief executive. By having more women in the C-suite, “a woman leader advocating for other women will no longer be seen as favoritism”.
3)    Champion diversity and inclusion. With men who champion diversity seen as competent, involving them in the diversity campaign would be a win-win for all.



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