Researchers in the 1970s found that when a woman was promoted to board level in a business, the number of women in senior roles in that firm either dropped or stayed the same. Rather than encouraging other women, it seemed high-achieving women were determined to hang onto their special status as ‘the only woman’ and would do anything to protect it. Researchers dubbed them ‘queen bees’ – the only woman in the hive – and ‘queen bee syndrome’ was born.
I spend a lot of time giving talks about women in leadership, how we can get more women to the top, and what it takes to be a great leader. At the end, I open the floor to questions and there is one that always comes up: ‘I work for a woman and she opposes other women being promoted. What do I do?’
Nearly 50 years after queen bee syndrome was discovered, we’re still suffering from it. Recent research shows that queen bee syndrome affects anyone with minority status: if you’re the only one of your kind, you dislike anyone similar coming into the group. This applies across gender, race, sexuality, hair colour, personality traits, Quality Street preference… But, why are we so quick to see it in women and not men?
We think of men as more Machiavellian; less empathetic. If they behave dishonourably, we think it’s in their character – but we expect women to be people-pleasing and kinder. The reality is that we’re all human and a mix of good and bad. Some women pull up the ladder behind them; so do some men. If you don’t want to be one of those women, there are some simple things you can do.
Look at your workplace and how women are treated in it. During the Obama administration, women working in the White House created a strategy they called ‘amplification’. When one of them made a point in a meeting, others would echo it, making sure it couldn’t be dismissed. Bragging for ourselves can be painful, bragging for someone else is easy. Also, look at where you spend your money. Large corporations are bad at caring about their supply chain but, as a consumer, you can influence their decisions with your spending habits.
You might love a certain jumper but, if you knew the company that makes it is exploiting women on the other side of the world, would you want it quite as much? But, the most crucial thing you can do is the easiest: vocalise support for another woman any way you can. Give time or money to a charity, sign a petition, lobby your MP, make your voice heard in support of a woman and, just like that, you’ve squashed the queen bee.
For weekly wisdom from Harriet, sign up for her newsletter at tinyletter.com/ harrietminter. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @harrietminter. Harriet is speaking at The Greatest Adventure: Love in the Time of Tinder from 29-30 April at The Globe in Hay-on-Wye. Book here.
Photograph: Mark Harrison for Psychologies