Debunking the Myths of Queen Bees and Wannabes in the Workplace

Debunking the Myths of Queen Bees and Wannabes in the Workplace

The stereotype of the “queen bee” insinuates that women who seek out and obtain power—whether in the workplace, in politics, or even in high school—tend to hurt rather than help their female peers, keeping other women down in order to preserve their own privileged positions. Sheryl Sandberg, who knows a thing or two about being a powerful woman, is having none of that; in a New York Times op-ed co-authored with Wharton professor Adam Grant, Sandberg debunks the myth that women don’t help each other:

According to the queen bee theory, a female senior manager should have a more negative impact on the other women trying to climb into professional ranks. When strategy professors studied the top management of the Standard & Poor’s 1,500 companies over 20 years, they found something that seemed to support the notion. In their study, when one woman reached senior management, it was 51 percent less likely that a second woman would make it.

But the person blocking the second woman’s path wasn’t usually a queen bee; it was a male chief executive. When a woman was made chief executive, the opposite was true. In those companies, a woman had a better chance of joining senior management than when the chief executive was a man.

In business and in government, research supports the notion that women create opportunities for women. On corporate boards, despite having stronger qualifications than men, women are less likely to be mentored — unless there’s already a woman on the board. And when women join the board, there’s a better chance that other women will rise to top executive positions. We see a similar pattern in politics: In Latin America between 1999 and 2013, female presidents appointed 24 percent more female ministers to their cabinets than the average for their region.

Women helping women is in fact the theme of Sandberg’s latest initiative through her Lean In project for advancing women as leaders in the workplace. In an interview with Charlotte Alter at Time, the Facebook COO explains what she hopes to accomplish:

The new initiative, she says, is all about finding ways to “help women help other women,.” They’ve put together some tips to help guide peer mentors: “How do you interrupt the interrupter, how do you make sure women get credit, how do you help girls to raise their voices, both in the classroom and at home with their friends?” she says. The tips for mentoring other women are available on LinkedIn, and include strategies like interrupting men who interrupt women (by saying something like “Hey, I’d like to hear what Kelly has to say”), actively celebrating other women’s accomplishments, and being a role model for young girls. Many of them aren’t terribly new— challenging the “likability penalty,” for example, is has been debated for years and was discussed in the original Lean In.

If anything, the broader messaging shift may be more more revolutionary than any of the individual suggestions: Sandberg is trying to transform individual ambition into a sense of collective achievement. Leaning In now means advocating for the women around you as much as you would advocate for yourself.

It’s also a clever solution to a practical problem. “There aren’t enough senior women to go around to mentor all the young women,” Sandberg says, adding that she also encourages senior men to mentor young women. But younger women, she says, can fill in the gaps. Sandberg says her own peers helped her at “very important inflection points” in her own career. “My mentors didn’t really understand what Google was or why I would go to Facebook,” she says. “My peers thought Google and Facebook were fabulous ideas.”