‘Queen bees’ may have hive minds af­ter all

Study casts doubt on the idea that fe­male ex­ec­u­tives don’t help women be­low them.

Los Angeles Times - - WORK LIFE - By Jena McGre­gor Jena McGre­gor writes a daily col­umn an­a­lyz­ing lead­er­ship in the news for the Wash­ing­ton Post’s On Lead­er­ship sec­tion.

Oneof the most en­dur­ing stereo­types in the Amer­i­can work­place is that of the “queen bee”: the ex­ec­u­tive who, at best, doesn’t help the women be­low her get ahead and, at worst, ac­tively hin­ders them. This sup­posed species has been an­a­lyzed in news­pa­per es­says, de­scribed in sur­veys and car­i­ca­tured in Hol­ly­wood.

But a re­cent study casts doubt on the idea. Re­searchers at Columbia Busi­ness School and the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land’s busi­ness school looked at what hap­pens af­ter a woman gets one of the five high­est-pay­ing ex­ec­u­tive jobs at an S&P 1500 firm. They found that it de­creased the prob­a­bil­ity of an­other woman also get­ting a top po­si­tion 51% — though not for the rea­son of­ten cited.

Given the “queen bee” stereo­type, peo­ple have of­ten posited that the woman at the top might be try­ing to hold other women back from join­ing her. Yet the re­searchers say that their find­ings in­stead sug­gest the cul­prit is “im­plicit quo­tas,” in which com­pa­nies feel pres­sure to add women to their up­per­ranks toim­prove their public im­age — but once they’ve added one, they be­lieve they’ve done their job.

“They try pretty hard to get a woman on their top man­age­ment team, but then they will stop,” said David Ross, a coau­thor of the study. “What I think our pa­per shows is that it’s go­ing to be harder for the low num­ber of women in top man­age­ment to be a prob­lem that solves it­self.”

Part of what sup­ported their find­ing was that in com­pa­nies in which a woman was the chief ex­ec­u­tive, rather than just a se­nior mem­ber of the team, women had bet­ter chances of gain­ing other top po­si­tions. “[If] women are do­ing each other in,” Ross said, “you’d ex­pect to see it the most when women are CEO.”

The pa­per, which is set to be pub­lished in Strate­gic Man­age­ment Jour­nal, first got at­ten­tion a few months ago but resur­faced this month since its find­ings will be pre­sented at a con­fer­ence of girls’ schools in Bri­tain. Some head­lines have said this re­search shows the queen bee syn­drome is a myth, but Ross says the idea of im­plicit quo­tas doesn’t ex­actly dis­prove the other ar­gu­ment but just weak­ens it.

“We don’t know if the queen bee syn­drome ex­ists, but if it ex­ists it could well ex­ist be­cause of sex­ism,” Ross said. If women are com­pet­i­tively vy­ing for top po­si­tions, it’s “not aris­ing from some kind of in­nate fe­male qual­ity, but from the be­hav­ior of the menand their col­leagues.”

Mean­while, there’s other ev­i­dence that women may “pay it for­ward” to the next gen­er­a­tion even more than men do. A 2012 study from the re­search firm Cat­a­lyst found, for in­stance, that 73% of the fe­male men­tors it stud­ied were help­ing de­velop other women, whereas only 30% of the male men­tors were do­ing the same.

But women, although per­haps more likely to help other women, aren’t nec­es­sar­ily more likely to be in men­tor­ship po­si­tions to begin with. A sur­vey last year from the hu­man re­sources con­sult­ing firm Devel­op­ment Di­men­sions In­ter­na­tional found that as many as 20% of the women it sur­veyed had never been asked to be men­tors and more than 50% had been asked only a few­times.

Sharon Mavin, direc­tor of the busi­ness school at Uni­ver­sity of Roe­hamp­ton in Lon­don, has also found in her re­search that women are read­ily open to help­ing and men­tor­ing other women. The prob­lem isn’t an un­will­ing­ness to help, she said in an in­ter­view, but that when there are only one or two women at the top, “there’s not enough mo­men­tum for the cul­ture that’s al­ready been es­tab­lished to change.”

Mavin, who has also writ­ten about the queen bee phe­nom­e­non, added: “For a woman to sur­vive in that con­text, there’s a lot of strate­gies she can take. But a lot of them mean as­sim­i­lat­ing into that cul­ture rather than chang­ing it.”

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