When I was appointed as the Europe General Manager for Schlumberger, the announcement was made through the company’s usual communication channels. Two other women were appointed at the head of a region or a country at the same time as me.
One of my colleagues came to see me to congratulate me. And he added, “Now that there are several executive women, there is going to some fights”
I was rather surprised by this remark and especially as I did not understand it. No one had told me about the “Queen Bee” Syndrome. I did not know that such a thing existed. On the contrary, having spent the majority of my career as the only woman at my level in various positions I held, I was thrilled to finally have female peers.
What is Queen Bee Syndrome?
Eve Program wrote an excellent article on the subject here. Simply put, this term refers to the idea that when a woman reaches a leadership position, she prevents other women from advancing for fear of losing her place of status!
There have been several studies supporting this thesis. The most recent in 2015, by the University of Maryland, concluded that the probability for a woman to be promoted drops by 50% in circumstances where the manager is a woman. Conversely a study by the Columbia Business School shows that this thesis of the queen is a myth (links to the studies here et here). Certainly, the numbers can be interpreted differently. As an example, in the case of the University of Maryland study, assuming that the results are correct, before concluding that women are their own worst enemies, we need to look at the other hypotheses. In many male dominated companies, once a woman has been promoted to an executive position, the management considers that the diversity work is done, therefore no need to promote other women. On the contrary, when a company has a female executive company director, the number of female employees increases.
But let’s stop talking about numbers and studies and let’s try to understand why this metaphor is an issue in itself. Could it be an easy way to challenge women’s ascension? Nice image than the one of “witches” who argue as soon as they have that power? Such person clearly does not have the right credibility to manage a team. But in reality, have you met many of them?
However, it is certain that without speaking of “queen of bees”, that work must be done to improve unity among female colleagues.
For example, several years ago a Human Resources manager told me, ” You guys, the trailblazers, are not supporting younger women, as you think that as no one helped you, why should you help them? The recurring theme of: “If I did it, why can’t they?”
Thinking about it, I realized he was right. I also had a tendency to look down upon women who were turning to me for assistance when they faced certain barriers to work. After all, I had managed to cope alone, they have to do the same. I was also part of the problem.
When I started in the oil industry 30 years ago, you had to be strong enough to deal with everyday sexism. However, we need to have change. Shouldn’t our responsibility be to give anyone, if they have the skills and talent needed, a chance to follow the career they merit, and to be able to do in an environment that is agreeable?
During my career, I observed two types of behaviors among women in industry.
There are those who think that their role is to support their female colleagues. They will try to promote women around them and this is not a matter of making positive discrimination, but simply of finding the famous “Talented, Silent”. In other words, they have to go against their cognitive biases that tend to have them offer managerial positions, mostly, to men.
Then there are those who will not do or say anything, just stay neutral. They will not proactively engage in support other female employees, but they will not try to impede their progress either.
However, I have never met a woman who used her power to impair others. They certainly exist, but we must stop believing that they are the majority! Although I am clearly in the first category, I do not spare inept women who work for me. If they are not capable to perform their job, I take action, and sometimes a harsh one.
Finally, the question I ask myself is this: “How common are these queen bees? More prevalent than men? When a woman manager is demanding, or “bossy” she proves the opinion about the stereotypical status of the jealous shrew and thus discredits her authority.
Thus, is it time to fight against the commonly held belief that female interactions are based on pettiness and jealousy and instead prove that it is through solidarity and sorority that we will reach an egalitarian society. The myth of the queen bee must disappear, along with all the other perceptions suggesting that female relationships are driven solely by rivalry.
Ladies, with an average of less than 10% of women in executive positions, we have a lot of ground to conquer, but we will be stronger if we do it together!