Queen Bee or Mother Hen: The Contradictory Images of Professional Women

Business meeting.By Nneka Orji (London)

“Queen bees halt the wannabes” (Article headline from The Times Higher Education, 2004)

“I was really looking forward to a new opportunity at work but I just found out that the team manager will be a woman (audible sigh).” (Anonymous colleague)

No doubt you’ve heard this sentiment or read a similar headline a number of times during your career. I certainly have and I only started my career two and a half years ago. Young female colleagues and friends talk about avoiding female managers because of concerns around lack of support, hidden agendas, and jealousy. The question here is should they genuinely be concerned? Do senior female figures in organisations really exhibit non supportive behaviour to other women (the Queen Bee Phenomenon), or do they go out of their way to mentor more junior women (Mother Hen behaviour)?

For both the young females and more senior female figures working in corporate environments, it’s important to address this issue. There are numerous articles that are targeted at women who are at the threshold between management and senior management or executive level, but not nearly enough that provide guidance for more junior females who are still further away from the sometimes elusive glass ceiling.

Here, we look at this issue in more detail particularly in light of the discussion around senior and junior female relationships. Should we heed the advice to avoid all female managers, or ignore the naysayers and proactively seek opportunities to work with female colleagues at all levels and in our firms?

Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument.

Team Queen Bee – avoid female colleagues at all costs!

The Queen Bee syndrome has long been discussed and documented – with notable Hollywood films providing a number of examples of ‘Queen Bees’ (see Clueless and The Devil Wears Prada). In the corporate world, rather than using their positions of leadership to support other women, Queen Bees tend to do everything in their power to prevent other females from climbing the corporate ladder.

Take Yahoo’s recent announcement to insist that all Yahoos (Yahoo employees) work in the office and not at home, documented in an article in The Economist. It has already been implied that this plan could be seen as a move by the company’s fairly new Chief Executive, Marissa Meyer, to “slap down the sisters.” Working mothers who need the flexibility of working at home to care for their children could view this as Ms. Meyer’s strategy to “knock out a few rungs” on the corporate ladder, while she enjoys her personal crèche next door to her office. Of course the real driver behind the announcement is Yahoo’s plan to get its house in order, yet the perception of an ulterior motive is openly implied.

This example highlights that the idea of women working against other women can be both active (e.g. proactively tarnishing the reputation of female colleagues) as well as unintentional (e.g. supporting initiatives which have a negative impact on female employees). Actively investing in the downfall of other females is inexcusable but applies only to a small percentage of females. While this is a real example of the Queen Bee syndrome, the more prevalent unintentional behaviour is not.

So if passive, unintentional behaviour makes up the majority of cases, and a very small minority of women take pleasure in actively ruining the chances of success for their female colleagues, is the Queen Bee phenomenon really just a myth?

Team Mother Hen – I’ve got your back!

To argue that the Queen Bee effect is a popular myth, we must use facts.

According to a recent Catalyst study, 73% of women who are developing new talent within an organisation are developing female talent. That’s right – they’re focusing on other women! This contrasts greatly with the 30% of men who are developing male talent.

What this tells us is that women are actively seeking opportunities to support other women, sometimes going out of their way to mentor and share experiences with other female colleagues. They are clearly exhibiting mother hen behaviour – looking out for “their own” even when it means facing more challenges and investing more personal time.

In some organisations, women’s networks provide the platform to support and develop women through targeted initiatives such as family friendly schemes and career progression advice. Even if organisations don’t provide such opportunities and the unintentional behaviour mentioned above is more prevalent, informal female-female mentoring could be argued to be even more effective.

If the statistics tell us that more women are developing women, than men are developing men, why isn’t the mother hen view of female managers more publicly shared and acknowledged? Surely women who avoid working with other female colleagues, thanks to the Queen Bee myth, are missing out on unique development opportunities. And this in turn leads to lower engagement which is one of the main reasons behind the existing gender gap at board level which is the focus of much attention.

Changing the Perception

We need to get the message out early to demystify the Queen Bee myth, so younger females can seize opportunities to learn from the experiences of their female colleagues. At the same time, we all need to be more proactive in our approach to mentoring colleagues and using their positions to reduce the damaging effects of unintentional behaviour.

Here are 3 things we should all do:

Mentor (formally and informally)! Proactively look for opportunities to mentor other female colleagues. It is particularly important that senior women do this by reaching out to more junior female colleagues so they know that the door really is open. If your organisation doesn’t have a formal women’s network, look to set one up or put some time aside to speak to other women and share your experiences in an informal setting. Note that age is not a factor in mentoring so you’re never too young to start mentoring.

Represent! Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook, talks about the importance of women taking a “seat at the table.” Once you’re at the table, it’s one of your responsibilities to represent other females in your organisation. If there are decisions taken at executive levels which could potentially lead to less female-friendly working environments, then be the voice of your female colleagues.

Speak up! You don’t have to be an executive for your voice to be heard. The next time you’re catching up with a male or female colleague and they touch on the subject of poor development opportunities with female managers, speak up. Share the statistics with them and also personal experiences so they can be convinced that there are real development opportunities that they could miss out on if they accept the headline covers on the Queen Bee myth.

Through these three actions, we can change the way women in the professional world are perceived so we reflect more accurately our collaboration and support for one another.

For those who remain unconvinced as a result of having come across genuine Queen Bee (I doubt there are many), you can be satisfied in the knowledge that the experience has made you stronger. We’re all likely to face unsupportive managers at some point in our careers, but given the statistics, the challenge is less likely to come from a female colleague.

By the way, what is the term for the male equivalent of a Queen Bee? That deserves headline covers. Why focus on a myth instead of reality?