The Real Reason Behind “Queen Bee Syndrome” — and What To Do About It

As women attempt to advance from mid-career leaders into senior and executive positions, plenty of roadblocks stand in their path — but one of those barriers may come as a surprise: other women.

“In some cases, women who have broken the glass ceiling do not sponsor, promote, or support the career advancement of mid-career women leaders,” explains Sophia Zhao, a senior researcher at CCL.

This “queen bee syndrome,” a term first coined in 1973, is often referenced during CCL leadership training programs, where mid-level women mention the lack of support from senior women. “For these mid-level women leaders to further advance their careers, it is very important that diversity and inclusion is advocated and valued in their organizations,” says Zhao.

“So why wouldn’t women — especially senior women — strive to support the advancement of other women?” asks Zhao, lead author of our white paper, Queen Bee Syndrome: The Real Reason Women Do Not Promote Women.

Instead of blaming senior-level women, our researchers asked if there was another factor at play: Could it be that senior-level women are penalized for supporting other women leaders?

Gender Bias Matters

To better understand the lack of diversity in senior leadership teams, our research team first took a step back to get a big-picture view. They wanted to see how leaders — both men and women — are viewed by their peers when they openly value diversity in the workplace.

Researchers looked at the results of 360-degree data collected from leaders who came to CCL leadership development programs to examine the relationship between diversity-valuing behaviors and competency/performance ratings.

Their findings:

  • Female leaders who show that they value diversity in the workplace receive much lower competency ratings than male leaders who show that they value diversity in the workplace.
  • Men’s performance ratings actually increase when they show that they value diversity in the workplace, while women’s performance ratings decrease when they show that they value diversity in the workplace.

Next, the team examined what happens when women actually promote other women.

Researchers asked two groups of working adults to evaluate the competency of a hiring manager who was interviewing candidates for a vacant senior vice president position. One group was told that the hiring manager chose a white male candidate because he “had the highest scores.” The other group was told that the hiring manager chose a woman because she “had the highest scores and increases the racial and gender balance of our leadership team.”

The results of the second part of the study:

  • When the hiring manager was a male, his competency ratings weren’t affected by his decision — the group of working adults gave him the same rating whether or not he was motivated by increasing his leadership team’s racial and gender balance.
  • When the hiring manager advocating for diversity was a female, her competency rating dropped dramatically. There seems to be a perception that when a woman advocates for another woman, she’s somehow showing favoritism.

And there may be another factor at play as well. In a work environment where men are in the majority, particularly at the top, women must work harder to break in. It’s also possible that once they do, they may feel threatened by other women who could replace them.

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Making Gender Equity a Reality

Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentage of women on their boards outperform those with the fewest according to Catalyst, a leading women’s research and development organization.

So how do we make gender equity a reality in more companies? It takes a multi-pronged effort by the entire community, including governments, organizations, the media, plus men and women.

Legislatures/governments can:

  • Create and uphold laws against discrimination and crimes against women.
  • Institute pay equity.
  • Create a development pipeline for women in government.
  • Support legislation that is woman- and family friendly.
  • Appoint more women to leadership roles; make them visible.

Organizations can:

  • Insist on equality in succession planning.
  • Implement gender-neutral hiring processes.
  • Review all HR policies for diversity and inclusion outcomes.
  • Strengthen parental leave for parents of all genders.
  • Offer more flexibility in where and when work happens.
  • Give women more challenging assignments and developmental opportunities.

Media can:

  • Focus on women’s accomplishments and impact on business/community — not on what women wear or how they look.
  • Showcase women who are equally capable advocating for diversity; avoid portraying senior women as stereotypical queen bees.
  • Point out adversities that keep women from leading.
  • Hire more women into key roles.
  • Promote portrayals of men participating in housework.

Men can:

  • Mentor and sponsor women.
  • Share family and home-care responsibilities fully.
  • Educate themselves and learn about unconscious bias and discrimination against women.
  • Advocate for diversity and inclusion.
  • Provide equal opportunities and allow risk-taking and failure.

Women can:

  • Ask for mentorship/sponsorship for themselves.
  • Advocate for diversity and inclusion.
  • Get involved in company’s diversity initiatives.
  • Use social media platforms to create awareness and build their personal brand.
  • Fight their own inhibitions; speak up.

What Are You Waiting For?

To grow the ranks of women leaders, women must work together and support each other. But women aren’t solely responsible for creating a diverse work environment — in fact, men stand to gain by advocating for diversity.

“In my interviews with men and women, senior leaders who advocate for gender and ethnic diversity are highly regarded,” Zhao says. “Since men are not only not penalized, but even rewarded when they advocate diversity and inclusion, why are they not doing it more?”

By sharing these research findings, Zhao hopes more men will join the group of champions for women. “Both genders are equally important in this conversation,” she says.

Women’s leadership is not about excluding men; women cannot succeed without men’s support, and vice versa. Zhao adds, “If people are more aware of the bias, there’s a better chance that in the future both men and women get rewarded when they champion diversity.”


Learn more by downloading our white paper, Queen Bee Syndrome: The Real Reason Women Do Not Promote Women, and get more tips for ways to make gender equity in the workplace a reality. 

Also, we invite you to explore our free resources on mentoring & sponsoring women:

Access our free resources on mentoring and sponsoring women.

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