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 the lack of support from senior 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: Why Women Don’t Support Other Women

To better understand the lack of diversity in senior leadership teams, and why women don’t support other women, we wanted to see how peers view both male and female leaders when they openly value 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, the 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.”

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. Learn more about the possible reasons why women don’t support other women in our white paper.

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. Women’s leadership is not about excluding men, and women cannot succeed without men’s support.

But it will take a multi-pronged effort by the entire community, including governments, organizations, the media, 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?

Attract and retain more women in your workplace and create an environment where talented women support other women and diverse talent can thrive. Offer customized women’s leadership development or partner with us to create an organizational culture where all your talent can thrive with our equity, diversity & inclusion practice.

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