It was Madeleine Albright who used the powerfully galvanising phrase “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” She was ostensibly supporting Hillary Clinton’s US presidential candidacy.
However, what she did was to reinforce the Queen Bee myth. By priming the Queen Bee myth, she inadvertently sent the message that women weren’t suitable for leadership roles.
She was attempting to promote the value of women in leadership, so how did she backfire by invoking the spectre of the Queen Bee?
The Queen Bee syndrome describes the ‘bitch who stings other women if her power is threatened’. The term denigrates senior women for not supporting other women. Women who are successful, but who are not deemed to be sufficiently warm, attract this approbation. Margaret Thatcher, Anna Wintour, and Peta Credlin have all been denigrated this way.
Women deserve a place – but it’s not a special place in hell
In “Queen Bees: the sting isn’t where you think it is”, I wrote about US research that debunked the myth. Across a 20 year study of Fortune 1000 companies, more women were appointed to key leadership roles where the CEO was a woman. Concerted action on the part of female board members also increased the number of female senior leaders. That’s a clear history of female senior leaders who helped other women get leadership roles.
Similar results come from a recently released large study of 8.3 million organisations distributed across 5,600 Brazilian municipalities. Where the mayor was a woman, re-elected for her second term, there was a significant increase in senior female leaders. Economist Arvate and his research team conclude that rather than a ‘Queen Bee’ phenomenon, there is in fact a ‘Regal Leader’ effect. When women leaders have the discretion to choose their senior teams, they choose significantly more women than men do.
The researchers claim that this is the first research to avoid endogeneity bias. It establishes a causal relationship between women in positions of power, and outcomes related to gender. They conclude that the Queen Bee effect is non-existent or cancelled out by the role-modelling effects of women in senior roles. Previous research is not causal, and highly flawed. Or not research at all, merely single examples, such as Margaret Thatcher.
The effect is strongest when women are in their second term, highlighting the time it takes for leaders to assert their choices.
Why is the Queen Bee meme so persistent?
Firstly, it plays into stereotypes about the kinds of roles that women ‘should’ play. For those who don’t believe that women are good leadership material, this is evidence for why not. Bias confirmed.
Secondly, it accesses unconscious stereotypes that hold that women should be warm while men are competent. Many of us, including myself, unconsciously hold these associations. That women must be warm and always support other women is part of that stereotype. Unconscious bias activated. By accepting the Queen Bee syndrome without challenge, the stereotype holds.
The issue is not that some senior women are ‘cold’, ‘tough, or ‘like men’. That’s what some successful male leaders are like; they don’t attract the same kind of approbation.
The issue is that women aren’t allowed to be ‘cold’, ‘tough, and ‘like men’. They are not womanly if they are.
Oh for a time when men can be warm and women competent: the best leaders, male or female, are both warm AND competent, but that’s a pretty tall order.
Let’s debug our thinking about women leaders. The Queen Bee Syndrome is a myth. There is no plague of stings. We don’t need that space in hell. (Hell knows, there are plenty of others who are more deserving of a reservation.)
Repeat after me, ‘Women in senior decision making roles are more likely to support the careers of other women.’
What you can do:
- Look for, and share, evidence of women supporting each other.
- Accept diversity in leadership – women might not be warm, men might be – and still be effective.
- Support, cheer for, and tell everyone about women who trail blaze.