Historically, successful women have run the risk of being characterized as the “quintessential ‘bitch’ who is concerned not at all about others but only about herself”. Women regarded as successful attract negative reactions that focus primarily on their interpersonal capabilities. Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada is often used to illustrate the point. The supposed source of the character Streep portrays is Anna Wintour, who is described as having an aloof and demanding personality, earning her the nickname ‘Nuclear Wintour’. Closer to home, Peta Credlin is characterized similarly.

While we might all be able to recognize this pattern, up to date research indicates that the sting doesn’t come from women in senior roles.

But first: what is a Queen Bee? In organizations with few senior women, expectations about behaviour and style are firmly male. Women take care and men take charge.

Queen Bee syndrome is used to describe the ‘bitch who stings other women if her power is threatened’ and the term is used to blame senior women for not supporting other women.

The power of the dominant group is attractive. Where women are in the significant minority, there is enormous pressure to join with the majority group, which causes ‘insider’ women to become hostile to ‘outsider’ women. As a personal survival mechanism some women become as ‘unwomanly’ as possible and react with hostility to other women. They become part of the dominant group (men), sometimes take on dominant group member characteristics, and exclude members of the non-dominant group.  Queen Bees are seen to hold on to their power as the ‘token woman’ by denigrating other women as ’emotional’, expressing anti-female attitudes, and avoiding female-focused programs and gatherings.

Such women who perform well in male gender-stereotyped roles are generally not liked: they attract negative reactions that focus primarily on their interpersonal capabilities, and their lack of warmth in particular. Both women and men see them as less desirable as bosses, compared with men described in similar ways.

In just-released research Dezso and colleagues examined the under-representation of women in the top executive teams of US S&P 1,500 firms over a 20 year period. They found that the presence of one woman in a top management team reduced, rather than increased, the chance that a second woman would be appointed to that team.

As that seems so counter-intuitive, they explored the potential causes further, and explicitly tested the Queen Bee hypothesis. Was it this syndrome that prevented a second woman getting into the top team? They examined organizations with a female CEO: according to Queen Bee syndrome, if the person with the top job is a woman, it should be less likely that another woman will be appointed to the top team. The reverse was in fact the case.

A second woman was much more likely to be appointed to the top team if the CEO was a woman.

In addition, firms appeared to hire women into senior management roles in response to actions by their female board members.

Where does the sting come from then? The researchers suggest an ‘implicit quota’. They argue that firms gain legitimacy if they have women in top management. However, the marginal value they gain after one woman is appointed declines with each successive woman “whereas the perceived costs, from the perspective of the male majority in top management, may increase with each woman”.

What can you do?

1. Accept a broad range of leadership styles.

2. Challenge the myth whenever you get the chance. Cite the research.

3. Support, and make supportive comments about, women who trail blaze.