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April 14, 2011This week, media outlets in India, the UK and US ran stories about the so-called “Queen Bee Syndrome,” a phenomenon where women bosses ostensibly “wreck a woman’s promotion prospects.” In the guest-post below, Catalyst researcher Christine Silva tackles the myth of the Queen Bee. Don’t buy into the buzz, she writes, female bosses don’t sting. —Ilene H. Lang

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Do female bosses “wreck” the careers of their female underlings? This sounds like the plot to a cheesy Hollywood movie—not actual conditions in the workplace.

Catalyst research on the impact of mentorship found that women are more likely than men to have female mentors. Surely this points to the number of women willing to help other women develop and advance.

As a Catalyst researcher, I decided to dig deeper. I found evidence showing women’s capability of being stellar people managers—and an even more critical need for getting women in the highest positions.

The recent news stories about the supposed “Queen Bee Syndrome,” in which women supervisors supposedly harm women subordinates, cite the work of David Maume of the University of Cincinnati. Interestingly, his original research does not back up the sensational headlines.

Looking closely at the data analysis in Maume’s study, I drew the following conclusions:

- Women employees feel they receive the same job-related support from male and female bosses.

- There is no difference in women’s perceived chance at promotion based on their boss’s gender. In other words, having a woman manager doesn’t harm a woman employee’s career. Yet somehow some media outlets have interpreted “no difference” between male and female bosses on women’s careers as evidence that senior women are somehow actively holding back rising young women.

Perhaps journalists were confused about Maume’s findings around men. According to his study:

- When men have women bosses, they feel more optimistic about their advancement chances and feel they receive more job-related support than when men have male bosses.

- And thus, compared to the women subordinates, the men with female bosses report more support and greater advancement potential. The rationale Maume puts forth for why this might be has nothing to do with women preferring to help male subordinates over their female subordinates. Rather, he points to systemic gender biases in organizations. He writes:

The results are consistent with much research showing that workplaces are pervasively male-oriented in their customs, policies, and structures, and that female bosses are no different from male bosses in reacting to organizational preferences to invest in men’s careers more so than women’s (p. 297).

Maume concludes that people may be disappointed if they think hiring more women as managers is the silver bullet to advancing women into leadership roles. Still, I think there’s more hope in his research than he realizes.

Maume’s findings on the experiences of men speak to the potential of women to be terrific people managers. In a perfect world, if organizational norms allowed for the equal advancement of women and men, we might find that women bosses are actually preferred, providing strong support to their female and male subordinates alike.

Unfortunately, much Catalyst research shows evidence of inherent biases still operating in workplaces around the world. In Maume’s view, women bosses may feel more constrained as, he says, they “lack the power to impede organizational preferences to foster men’s careers” (p. 296).

And indeed, among the highest-earning women in his study, those women with a female boss were more optimistic about their advancement chances than those with a male boss. While he concludes that this means very few women are likely to benefit from those “change agent” women, I think he’s stumbled upon where these female change agents are likely to be most effective: at the top of the house.

The best way to address Maume’s findings is to not to criticize female bosses as “Queen Bees,” but to fix the workplace culture he cites as the problem—namely, to counter pervasive barriers so that women and men alike can excel and advance. Organizations shouldn’t just focus on getting more women in the door, but should instead focus on getting more women into the critical roles that could meaningfully influence the culture. These women can tackle the informal workplace dynamics that hold women back in the first place.

Now that’s a news angle I’d love to see covered!

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Christine Silva directs and supports Canadian and global research projects focused on gender and diversity issues and is a co-author of Catalyst’s longitudinal study of high-potential employees. Ms. Silva received a Master of Industrial Relations from the University of Toronto, a Master of Science in Organizational Behaviour from Queen’s University, and has completed doctoral coursework in Organizational Behaviour at Queen’s University.