‘Queen bees’ may have hive minds after all, study shows

One of 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 over and over 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 upper ranks to improve their public image — but once they’ve added one, they feel 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 co-author 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 CEO, rather than just a senior member of the team, women actually had somewhat 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 an upcoming 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 men and their colleagues.”

Meanwhile, there’s other evidence that women may actually “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 (despite that most held management roles), and more than 50% had been asked only a few times.

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.”

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.