In exploring the reasons why women are not proportionally represented in the upper ranks of business, some have pointed to women themselves. They note that women can be catty, sabotage each other or simply not extend a hand to other women through mentoring. The metaphor of the “Queen Bee” is often used to describe women who prefer being the only woman at the top and have little interest in having other women join them there.
A 2012 Catalyst report characterized the Queen Bee as a myth and concluded that women generally support and mentor other women—and benefit from doing so. This optimistic report, though, acknowledges that all women are not “paying it forward.” I continue to get questions on why women do bad things to other women at work. So, I believe reports of the death of the Queen Bee are premature.
In my book, I devote an entire appendix to the topic of women working with women. I celebrate the positive side—that women support and champion each other. And I try to shed light on the negative side—which includes “Queen Bees” behavior. Shedding light on causes of this behavior among women in the workplace is meant to help those remaining Queen Bees become self-aware, change their behaviors and support other women.
What is a Queen Bee? Queen Bees claim more affinity with men than women and distance themselves from other women. They say things like, “I prefer working with men.” They see themselves as “special” and enjoy the honor of being the first or only woman at an upper level of the organizational hierarchy. Having reached it, they pull up the ladder behind them, maintaining that honor by withholding support for other women. Often a Queen Bee got to her position without having women role models or mentors. Rather than reach out a hand to help other women, they figure other women can make a solo climb, too.
Why would women do this? One study suggested that, when there are very few women at the executive level, they get compared to one another, leading to competition; it concluded that women in leadership want to avoid being seen as favoring women (and overcompensate?). Women, like men, are the product of a culture that values men over women and masculine traits over feminine. Women may simply under-value other women! The hierarchical structure of the workplace is not the natural feminine structure; women may (unconsciously) be uncomfortable with a woman “above” or “below” them in status. Feminine styles of conflict and competition can fuel tensions among women.
I think that many Queen Bees are simply unaware. Even today, some women are one of the first women to succeed and may simply not have thought about the benefit of having more women at the leadership level–and their own role in helping other women get there. Or they may simply be juggling work and family and not recognize the importance of making time to get to know, mentor and sponsor other women. They may not know the business value of gender diversity in leadership. They may not know the strengths of feminine as well as masculine ways of working.
If the Queen Bee isn’t dead yet, I would like to accelerate her demise! Gender diversity in leadership is good for business. And women won’t reach the upper ranks of business in sufficient numbers to deliver the upsides without the full support of their own. I hope some focus on this issue can convert all remaining Queen Bees into champions for qualified women! Businesses will thank them for helping capture the upsides of gender diversity in leadership.
Do women do more “helping” tasks (vs “working”) in your office? In their third in a four-part New York Times series on women at work, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant answer, “Yes.” “Helping” (also called “office housework”) means counseling more junior colleagues, planning events, staying late to help a co-worker, taking notes in meetings, and getting coffee for others. The punchline of the article is “women help more but benefit less from it.”
The research cited shows that women are expected to be helpful so get little credit in performance evaluations when they are. Worse, they are penalized in performance reviews when they decline to “help.” Men are expected to put results ahead of communal needs. So, when men do “help,” they are rewarded.
Not only do women face this no-win proposition; helping costs them energy and, most important, costs them opportunities. The authors quote Joan Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work whose own Washington Post article addresses women and “office housework.” Says Williams, “The person taking diligent notes in a meeting almost never makes the killer point.”
Grant and Sandberg’s solution is to “first acknowledge it.” Yes, awareness is always the starting point for making change. They suggest that (if they are aware and acknowledge it) “men can help solve this problem by speaking up.” This is the same solution they suggest to solve the problem addressed in the second piece in this series. That problem (which I covered in a blog post) is men’s habit of “talking over” a woman, not hearing her ideas and judging her if she does speak up or speak “too much.”
Men don’t intentionally “talk over” women or ignore the value of the “help” they provide at work. They do it because they (like all of us) have unconscious ways of thinking — unconscious biases (or “mind-sets” as McKinsey calls them). The mind-sets underlying the issues highlighted by Sandberg and Grant reflect the cultural bias in favor of men and against women.
I hope Grant and Sandberg have brought awareness to a large audience. I hope that awareness (acknowledgment) of these issues enables men to see the issue and “speak up.” I hope this contributes to enabling women to reach their potential – and to the cause of gender diversity all the way up the organizational ladder.
Do you think the Sandberg-Grant series can increase men’s value of women at work?