We’ve seen her depicted time and time again -- Miranda Priestly in "The Devil Wears Prada," Katharine Parker in "Working Girl," Amanda Woodward on "Melrose Place" -- the boss lady who clawed her way to the top and is always ready to undermine other women trying to do the same.
In 1973 this woman even got her own name courtesy of researchers G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayaratne, and C. Tavris -- the Queen Bee. But there's a new study out that suggests that the Queen Bee archetype is far less ubiquitous than the press and the entertainment industry would have you believe.
The research, conducted by Catalyst, a non-profit organization that focuses on expanding opportunities for women in the workplace, found that most women aren’t in fact looking at their female subordinates as competition to be cut down. Rather, they view less experienced female coworkers as potential talent and are actually more likely than men to develop that talent through informal or formal mentorship.
"We were looking at the extent to which people are paying it forward," Christine Silva, the lead researcher on the study, told The Huffington Post. "Are people [mentoring and developing] the next generation of people behind them?"
The answer seems to be yes. Catalyst’s researchers followed the career development of 742 "high potential" MBA graduates –- both men and women -- who worked across a number of different fields from 2008 to 2010. The researchers questioned these graduates about the career help that they had received over the years, including both informal mentorship and more intensive "sponsorship," which involves working with a (usually) high-powered ally that actively fights for the career advancement of the individual he or she is sponsoring.
The survey also asked whether or not they were helping the next generation of employees advance. The report, titled "High Potentials In The Pipeline: Leaders Pay It Forward," found that many of the men and women currently involved in talent development had themselves been developed by someone else. Of this group, 65 percent of women who had received career support went on to return the favor to the next batch of emerging leaders, compared to 56 percent of men in the same situation. Out of the women who said they were developing talent, 73 percent said they are developing other women, the study showed. This contradicts the idea that the majority of powerful women are Queen Bees who discriminate against the women they supervise.
Catalyst’s findings also indicate that "paying it forward" isn’t just a selfless act. Men and women who developed protégés received an average of $25,075 more between 2008 and 2010 than those individuals who did not. This figure existed even when the researchers controlled for other factors. "It's really a win-win," said Silva. "It creates a culture of talent development where everyone recognizes their role in developing a good pipeline of leaders."
Why We’re Still Stuck On The "Queen Bee"
Although the Catalyst report indicated that the majority of women are involved in mentoring subordinates, the idea of the Queen Bee remains intact in popular culture. "Bad female boss? She may have Queen Bee Syndrome" declared the headline of a TODAY Relationships column written in April 2011. A CBS News piece from July 2011 promised to fill the reader in on "Why Your Queen Bee Boss Won’t Help You" and the ever-blunt Daily Mail warned in 2008 "Beware the Queen Bee boss -- she’s hell to work for."
In an essay titled "Why I’d Rather Work For A Man," Forbes contributor Susannah Breslin suggested that women avoid other women in the workplace altogether. Breslin wrote:
Tired of women-on-women jealousy at work? Nip that in the bud by eliminating women from the equation. Most women have had an experience with a female superior who wouldn’t let her advance because the woman in power was threatened. You might be insulted men see you as less of a threat, but that may be what enables you to climb up the ladder.
Silva conceded that there are probably some women who display Queen Bee-like qualities out there. "It’s not 100 percent of women or 100 percent of men who are developing others," she told HuffPost. "I absolutely believe that there are people out there who aren’t helping others advance." Yet the closest male equivalent of the Queen Bee -- the ball-busting, in no way nurturing Alpha Male boss -- is rarely presented as specifically threatening to one gender’s career aspirations.
A 2007 CNN article assigned these powerful men to four categories: Commanders, Visionaries, Strategists and Executors, extolling the many positive qualities that come along with an alpha male personality, while listing the negatives toward the end of the piece. On the other hand, Queen Bees are described as "emotionally unpredictable," "vain," "sharp tongued," "easily threatened" and "cliquey."
This may simply reflect the fact that there aren’t all that many females in the highest echelons of power to serve as examples of how women operate at the top. A 2010 Catalyst report showed that women run just 3.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies. The same study also showed that men are twice as likely as women to reach senior executive level positions, even though they are receiving advanced degrees at lower rates than their female counterparts. This gap still existed when Catalyst controlled for factors such as career ambitions and having children. "There are so many fewer women [than men] in leadership roles," said Silva. "It seems that if one woman does something negative, it’s almost as though people take that to mean that all women do something."
Gail Evans, professor of organizational behavior and author of "Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman," echoed Silva’s sentiments. "You see a lot of companies where the women who are making it are doing everything they can to help the other women," Evans told HuffPost. "But the minute we see a woman who isn’t doing this, we want to label her as the Queen Bee."
Evans said she considers the Queen Bee stereotype generational. "I think there certainly were Queen Bees around when the workplace was about scarcity for women," she said. "You ended up with women who were older who had given up a lot to get to those [leadership] positions. Their life was the job and their deep belief was 'I had to work hard, I had to give up a lot, it was tough to get here and the way in which I mentor younger women is to toughen them out.'"
But as more and more women have moved into middle management positions -- and in smaller numbers into senior management positions -- this archetype has become more grounded in cultural stereotypes than in reality, she said.
The Bottom Line: Developing New Talent Is Good For Everyone
Queen Bees and Alpha Males aside, Catalyst’s new report indicates that men and women alike should be taking an active interest in developing both male and female talent. The mentor, the mentee and the organization all benefit.
One way to ensure that more talent development occurs is for organizations to promote mentorship and sponsorship from the top. Both Silva and Evans were wary about formally enforced mentor-mentee pairings -- "You can’t mentor someone who you don’t like and who doesn’t like you," said Evans -- but emphasized that it was the responsibility of a company to set the tone. "Perhaps a formal pairing wouldn’t work, but maybe a situation where executives are expected to play an advocate role [for those below them]," said Silva. "There are many ways for companies to start this conversation."
Silva also emphasized that men and women who hope to rise through the career ranks should be open to seeking guidance from superiors of either gender. A December 2010 report showed that the gender of a sponsor or mentor doesn’t matter, all that matters is how senior that person is. In companies where men dominate the upper echelons, high potential female employees need to be proactive and build positive working relationships with those men. On the flip side, men who have female mentors are more likely to be aware of the barriers that women face in the workplace.
"The act of paying it forward is so powerful for the person doing it, the person being developed and the organization itself," said Silva. "I hope women hear that and think ‘this is something I can do proactively for my career.'"