Queen Bee Syndrome – all the rage – all the statistics – none of the answers? Part I

I was inspired to write this blog by some recent (April 2015) press articles around the subject. But, when I began to research it, I found a mass of contradictory evidence, which, sadly in my opinion, serves to obscure rather than illuminate the debate.  In the unlikely event that any exec-appts readers are unaware of what it is, the Queen Bee Syndrome is the theory that women who are successful tend to subjugate other women to prevent them from rising to the same level.  The argument is often based on the idea that women, like men, become keen to maintain their authority and therefore hold back other competitors, especially other women.

The idea that women don’t promote other women is well established, with the ‘Queen Bee Syndrome/Theory’ first defined in 1973.  Over the years, there has been much written as to whether it reflects the reality of corporate life. Interestingly, this debate is more ferocious in the USA than in the UK.

What is really interesting is that even though the various articles I read were from respected sources, the statistics used to make the writers’ cases are sometimes out of date.  For example, much quoted recently (e.g. in the Daily Telegraph, 10th April) is the ‘fact’ that even though women constitute almost 50% of the American workforce, they only account for 8.7% of senior managers. But this figure is from 2011.  Admittedly, it’s better than in 1992, when the figures was only 1.6%!  The same article quotes the UK Office of National Statistics, which tells us that almost one third of managers and 15.6% of FTSE directors in this country are women.  Even allowing for the obvious fact that many women do have career breaks to have children, that last figure (15.6%) is not reflective of the proportion (47%) of the total workforce that is female. But is it correct?

Given that Queen Bee Syndrome seems more of an issue in the USA, it’s perhaps unsurprising that much the research on the subject is American, with the Wall Street Journal reporting (on the 7th April 2015) that the University of Maryland “finds that a woman’s chances of landing one of a company’s five highest-paid executive jobs drop 51% if there’s already a woman on the team”.  While this would seem to confirm that Queen Bee Syndrome exists, it’s apparently not quite so simple.  Incidentally, this same article also refers to the 8.7% of senior managers being female, as quoted above by the Telegraph.

You would think that the DT and WSJ would have more up-to-date facts.  However, in their defence, the issue is one of definition. What is a ‘senior manager’?  A quick check around the internet comes up with one report (by Grant Thornton Intl no less) that suggests that in 2011 the percentage of women in senior management in the States was actually 15% and in the UK 23%.  Then again, another report, (again from very reputable sources) suggests that the figures in 2014 were 19% and 23% respectively. Who is right?  Find out (or not!) in Part II of this blog next week.

Steve Playford, MD, FT Careers

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