Women Pay a Price for Promoting Other Women

Women Pay a Price for Promoting Other Women

The Real Reason Behind “Queen Bee Syndrome”

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.

This “queen bee syndrome,” a term first coined in 1973, is often referenced during our women’s leadership development programs, where mid-level women mention feeling a lack of support from more senior women.

Rather than blaming senior-level women, our researchers wondered if there was another possible factor at play: Could it be that senior-level women are somehow penalized for supporting other women leaders?

Why Women Don’t Support Other Women: Gender Bias Matters

Building on our earlier research about the gendered use of the term “bossy,” and to better understand the reasons why women don’t support other women, we wanted to see how peers viewed both male and female leaders when they openly valued greater gender diversity in the workplace.

We looked at the results of 360-degree assessment data collected from leaders who attended our leadership development programs, and here’s what we found:

  • 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, our team examined what happens when women actually promote other women.

Researchers asked 2 groups of working adults to evaluate the competency of a hiring manager who interviewed 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.”

As noted in our white paper, the second part of the study found that:

  • 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, but
  • When the hiring manager advocating for diversity was a female, her competency rating dropped dramatically. There seemed to be a perception that when a woman advocated for another woman, she was somehow showing favoritism.
Our conclusion: This could be the real reason that women don’t promote other women.

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.

Women Need to Support Women — and Men Need to Join the Conversation

Of course, to grow the ranks of women leaders, more women need to support women.

But women aren’t solely responsible. In fact, as our study showed, men stand to gain by advocating for diversity. Strengthening women’s leadership is not about excluding men, and women cannot succeed without men’s support.

But overcoming barriers to women’s leadership will take a multi-pronged effort by the entire community — including governments, the media, businesses, and organizations — plus men and women themselves, to make gender equity in the workplace a reality.

The truth is, everyone has a role to play to foster a more equitable workplace.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Create a workplace environment where your team doesn’t need to worry about why women don’t support other women, and leaders of all genders support one another. Partner with us to offer women’s leadership development, or start building a stronger organizational culture where all your talent can thrive with our equity, diversity & inclusion practice.

Sign Up for Newsletters

Don’t miss a single insight! Get our latest cutting-edge, research-based leadership content sent directly to your inbox.

February 28, 2018
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

Related Content

Please update your browser.

CCL.org requires a modern browser for an enhanced and secure user experience. Internet Explorer is no longer supported or recommended by Microsoft. The Center for Creative Leadership recommends that you upgrade to Microsoft Edge or similar.