October 11, 2011 6:06 pm

Queen bees – an evolving species or an office myth?

Are you a woman working for a female boss? Has she helped or hindered your career? If she undermines you, shows little support and makes life difficult for other women too, your boss is said to be suffering from “Queen Bee Syndrome”. A queen bee is said to feel threatened by other women and resorts to undercutting and weakening their positions. Rather than wanting to advise, support or mentor them, she tries to suppress their contribution and development.

Is the queen bee an evolving species on its way to extinction, or simply another stereotype to label and undermine women who have worked their way up to a position of seniority?

A British study reported that two-thirds of women preferred male bosses as they found them more straight talking. Research in Germany found that women who answered to a female supervisor were more likely to suffer from health problems than if their boss were male. Meanwhile, in the US, the American Management Association found that 95 per cent of women felt undermined at some point in their careers by other women. Do these findings point to an infestation?

A recent study conducted by Belle Derks, an assistant professor of psychology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, found that such behaviour is not the fault of female managers, suggesting instead that it is a result of a sexist workplace in which successful women feel the need to fit in with the largely male management culture. Ms Derks argues that if women are placed in senior positions without gender bias in the organisation being addressed, some of them will mimic their male counterparts and distance themselves from other female employees. However, in my view, there is also the possibility that perhaps the business of delivering excellence, and meeting and exceeding expectations in the workplace and at home, simply does not permit women to devote time and energy to mentoring and supporting others of their sex. Maybe it is this that is seen as some kind of snub to the sisterhood?

Ms Derks rightly argues that “combating sexism at work does not start by blaming women and men for being prejudiced, but by doing more to coach female employees to pursue a career and achieve leadership positions.”

One sector that makes for an interesting case study is the UK’s hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism industry, which employs more than 2m people – just more than 7 per cent of the country’s working population.

People 1st, the skills council for the sector, found that while nearly 60 per cent of the workforce is female, only 6 per cent hold director-level board positions — half the national average. It is estimated that each year 310,000 women leave the industry, costing businesses £2.8bn ($4.4bn) in recruitment and training. In a sector that is still growing despite the recession and needs to recruit an additional 70,000 managers by 2017, the loss of talented female managers is an issue that is fundamental to successful business performance.

But can we blame the queen bees for this exodus? Unsurprisingly, it is not quite that simple. Of course there probably are some queen bees in the hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism sector, just as it is likely to have its fair share of ineffective male managers. Women leave this area because they are up against challenges such as a lack of flexible and part-time working arrangements at a senior level, and a lack of suitable role models, mentoring opportunities, and access to networks that could support them. Given the fact that there are so few women at the top, it is not surprising that females in junior positions do not have anyone to emulate or to act as mentors to them.

Whether you believe in the queen bee syndrome or not, there are poor male and female leaders in any industry. Good management and leadership may be instinctive to some, but for most it is a skill that is developed and honed over a career. If you do not train, practise and keep up to date with changing trends, like any skill, it can become ineffective. Businesses that support all their managers to develop their skills and help them to meet both the opportunities and the challenges they face as they climb the career ladder, will reap the benefits through loyalty and staff retention.

A more gender-balanced senior team, where women are fairly represented, have succeeded on merit and do not feel compelled to emulate the behaviour of male colleagues, has been proved to gain significant business advantage. Equally, demographic changes mean that female purchasing power continues to increase. With women expected to hold 60 per cent of all personal wealth by 2025, and already having a large influence on the majority of purchasing decisions, a senior team that represents the views and expectations of female customers is better able to recognise and respond to their needs.

The majority of successful women support and develop all the members of their teams. They are not threatened by the success of colleagues, but take pride in it, particularly if they have taken an active role in supporting that individual’s career.

Queen bees are a dying breed and the more we can all recognise the contribution that women make, appoint our senior teams on merit rather than preconceptions and outdated gender bias, provide the necessary training, mentoring and other support that we all benefit from in our careers, the stronger our businesses will be.

Natalie Bickford is chairwoman of Women 1st, an inititative that seeks to empower female leaders in the hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism industry, and human resources director of Sodexo, the catering group, for UK and Ireland

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.