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

Written by: Steve Playford
Published on: 4 May 2015

If you were with me last week, I’m writing about the problems involved in nailing down exactly how many women are in senior management and, equally difficult, what, assuming it exists, are the causes of the ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’ (that women who are successful strive to prevent other women from emulating them)?  

One of the biggest issues, described in the previous blog, is the proportion of women on boards. It does seem difficult to come up with a consistent definition and figure for this across different areas of the world (cultural issues that suppress women being the major problem in too many countries).  Yet the good news is that, no matter how you define senior management, the percentage of women at the top is rising, albeit (too) slowly.  So does the Queen Bee Syndrome hinder their ascent?

As I explained last week, much US-based research supports the Queen Bee hypothesis. Yet another recent study, in this instance published in the Strategic Management Journal, explains that Queen Bee Syndrome is a myth. To support their case, the authors claim it’s the male of the species who cause the problem, arguing that men, who dominate the top end of most companies, have a tendency to ‘tick the diversity box’ by having just enough (often only one) women in the upper echelons of their businesses.

However, that doesn’t solve the problem either, because a ‘landmark, global study’, commissioned by BNY Mellon and Newton Investment Management and conducted the University of Cambridge offers another perspective.

Covering a ten year period and studying over 1,000 companies from Forbes Global 2000 list in 41 countries, it concluded that “Economic power is defined by factors outside the boardroom including women’s expected years of education and participation in the labour force”, and concludes that these exogenous factors are the biggest influence on whether women get to the boardroom or not.  Yet this index of ‘economic power’ is based on the “average score of expected years of female education and female % labour force participation: 2004 – 2013”.  On this measure, the UK is ranked 9th in the world, while the USA is 6th and Australia is top. Now let’s try correlating this with some of the rankings for women in senior management in different countries from last week’s blog and see whether it all adds up. 

For the record, the list on the left is for the BNY study and ranks the countries where women’s ‘economic power’ is highest, while the one on the right is from 2011 Grant Thornton study referenced last week and ranks countries by the percentage of women in ‘senior management’.  While we’d expect things to have changed a bit in 2015, bear in mind that the left hand column covers 10 years of data so it’s not too unfair a comparison.  As you can see, each list is completely different! 

Australia                                                Thailand
Norway                                                  Georgia
Denmark                                                Russia
Finland                                                   Hong Kong
Ireland                                                    Philippines
USA                                                        China
Sweden                                                  Botswana
Netherlands                                            New Zealand
United Kingdom                                      Malaysia
France                                                    Poland

So yes, while I’m sure women’s economic ‘power’ is influenced by their education and participation in the workforce (with the obvious proviso that childbirth takes some of that time away), but the proof of the pudding is in the eating and this ‘power’ should, one would expect, have some impact on the number of women in senior positions. It appears we have some way to go.  And more importantly, none of these influences, in the UK at least, should account for the lifetime gap in earnings of over £400K between men and women on the same career paths. We do indeed have some way to go…

Steve Playford, MD, FT Careers