Queen Bee Syndrome, Dethroned
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Queen Bee Syndrome, Dethroned

When it comes to professional advancement, women can be their own worst enemy, right? That's pretty much an accepted fact at this point. But is it true? For years, feminists and workplace diversity proponents have grappled with the suggestion that high-ranking women actively limit the advancement of their female subordinates, a phenomenon known as Queen Bee syndrome. 

Female executives, the thinking goes, believe that there is limited room for women at the top, so preventing others from reaching the upper echelons of management is an act of self-preservation. But a new study by the Credit Suisse Research Institute suggests that there aren't as many Queen Bees as conventional wisdom might suggest. Female executives, it seems, are actually more likely to promote women who work under them than their male counterparts are.

The Queen and Her Daughters

The Queen Bee theory dates back to at least the 1970s, when researchers from the University of Michigan coined the term after analyzing 20,000 responses to a survey of Psychology Today readers and concluding that women were at times likely to oppose the rise of their female coworkers. Over the years, other research supported the findings, including a 2011 study of women managers in The Netherlands, which concluded that women vulnerable to Queen Bee behavior had experienced significant gender discrimination on their own climb up the corporate ladder. In her 2013 book, "Lean In," Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg lamented the Queen Bee syndrome. "Often, without realizing it, women internalize disparaging cultural attitudes and then echo them back," she wrote.

Female CEOs are 50 percent more likely to have a female CFO than their male peers. 

The Credit Suisse research, however, suggests that the echo doesn't carry quite as far as many might imagine. In a study of 3,400 of the world's largest companies, the researchers found that female CEOs are 50 percent more likely to have a female CFO than their male peers and 55 percent more likely to have women running business units. "Female CEOs are far more open to and effective in bringing women executives up through the pipeline," the researchers write.

Bee Social Structures Depend on the Sector…

The nature of the pipeline itself is also important. Generally, women have higher representation in shared services roles, including those within human resources and legal departments, than in operational roles. Such roles typically confer less influence within an organization, however, and as the Institute noted in its inaugural study on corporate gender diversity in 2014, "arguably also offer less potential to step up to a board level or the CEO role." In female-led companies, however, women are more likely to be promoted in a variety of roles, not just in shared services. In fact, female CEOs in the US are 3 percent less likely than male CEOs to have women leading human resources departments and are instead helping to push other female executives into more influential CFO and business head roles.

… and the Part of the World

Asia, however, presents an interesting contrast to the US. It enjoys the highest level of female CEOs, at 4.6 percent across the continent. And while female CEOs in Asia are more than twice as likely as male CEOs to have females running shared service business units, particularly in HR, they are just 36 percent more likely to have female executives in charge of business units – lower than in the US or Europe. That raises the question of whether the high relative levels of diversity in shared service roles in Asia may be skewed by the different level of importance attached to the positions by male CEOs compared to female CEOs, with the typical male CEO not even viewing shared services as part of senior management.

Asia enjoys the highest level of female CEOs, at 4.6 percent.

Sting in the Tail

While the study does raise serious questions about whether the Queen Bee syndrome is as pervasive as once thought, it also highlights the continued challenges companies face in including more women in senior management. Women may be more likely to promote other women, but they still represent just 3.9 percent of the CEOs in the Institute's survey group. That means that in the vast majority of cases, women seeking to advance to senior levels must still do so with the approval of male superiors, who are far less likely to promote them. It also appears that the inclusion of more women on company boards in recent years hasn't resulted in more women in managerial roles. In Europe, gender quotas on company boards helped increase female board participation to more than 24 percent in late 2015, an 80 percent increase over six years, but the Institute found no correlation between gender diversity at a board level and diversity in management. "[A] focus on the boardroom diversity does not necessarily help change culture and gender diversity practices in a meaningful, day-to-day manner inside a company," the researchers conclude. Even progress can come with a sting in the tail.