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Queen Bees: the reluctance of women executives to promote other women
Zogerah Johnson and Dr Babita Mathur-Helm
1/1/2013

Queen Bee behaviour is a term used to describe women executives that, after reaching senior positions, alienate other women and hence prevent more junior women from advancing through the ranks. Such behaviour has in the past specifically been observed in corporate environments with a tradition of male domination. This study explores the experiences of women executives and senior managers in South Africa in respect of the Queen Bee syndrome. It focuses on the banking sector as an example of a previously male-dominated environment.

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​Twenty-five women executives and senior managers from South Africa's five national retail banks were interviewed to obtain data on their unique personal experiences and perceptions of Queen Bee behaviour. The qualitative data were then content-analysed.

This is one of the first studies that reports on Queen Bee behaviour in South Africa, and confirms the existence of this behaviour in this country, despite the efforts in the corporate world to advance the gender cause. While this study does not provide evidence that women's advancement and growth in corporate organisations are solely reliant on the support and assistance of other women, it does indicate the constraints of a hierarchical and male-led work culture in most organisations that could be a block to the promotion of professional women. 


Women compete harder against other women
The results of this study confirm the prevalence of Queen Bee behaviour and attitudes. The information reported by the sample, provided evidence that not all women executives support other women in the workplace. Women executives and senior managers are not inclined to assist other women and are basically competitive, irrespective of which gender they are up against. However, the contest becomes harsher when other women are the competitors.

Women executives and senior managers have fears of being outperformed by those women who come up through the ranks, and this fear alters their behaviour: they become driven by self-interest and tend to hold back information to prevent others from surpassing them or becoming more empowered. They start believing that since they have worked hard to get to the top, other women wanting to reach high levels should do the same.

The study reports evidence from the sample that senior woman executives are unapproachable and very busy in their jobs, and have no time to assist. While women would not necessarily actively undermine each other, they would nevertheless be unhelpful in order to remain unique. The results reveal that women managers are harder on other women.

Women are protective of own power bases
This study also records experiences of women sample who were kept from promotion, and who were not actively assisted by their women bosses to advance to leadership roles. The women in the sample had to work hard to get to senior management positions. Evidence from the sample indicates that women in executive positions were very protective of their own power base and jealous of sharing it with others.

Besides the obstacles to advancement that Queen Bee behaviour presents, the study identifies other barriers that women encounter in the corporate world. These are related to race, gender, nepotism, legislative support for certain racial groups only, glass ceiling, old boys' clubs and networks, lack of female role models and mentors, and personal limitations.

The corporate environment is extremely competitive and even hostile. Key findings of the present study are that not many South African banks focus on specifically preparing women for leadership positions through training and guidance. While climbing the corporate ladder, women in the study were not provided with the mentorship and guidance needed to take on the leadership roles, but were offered only technical support.

Women take on male traits
Women need to be aware of the danger of falling into the trap of adopting male traits and characteristics, rather than sticking to their own personal styles. Past studies have found women executives taking on male traits or starting to personify men within a male-dominated environment – thus further indicating that the reasons for this behaviour and attitudinal change could be that women think that it is the only way they will be taken seriously and be accepted and that their opinions will be heard. Women in the present study in general felt that in order to survive in a corporate world, they would have to become like men, and to join the old boys' club and sometimes be "one of the boys".

Brash, harsh, and tough behaviour in women has been reported in several studies: all have given evidence of women's discriminatory attitudes and behaviour towards other female employees, and suggest that many women have admitted to falling into the trap of acting like males, and feeling a need to act in that way to become credible members of the team.
 
Interventions to advance women
This study does not indicate a direct link between Queen Bee actions and low numbers of women in executive or senior management positions. Indeed, it is evident that advancement and growth of women in corporate organisations are not solely reliant on the support and assistance of other women. A hierarchical and male-led work culture in most multinational corporations could be a block to the promotion of professional women and hence could be the reason for low numbers of women in executive and senior management roles. To get more women into leadership roles, succession planning, talent pools, career development programmes and job-shadowing for potential women executives and senior managers would be options for retail banks to consider.

Future research
Future studies can investigate other work sectors and develop tools to detect and discourage Queen Bee behaviour.


This is a summary of the article Experiences with Queen Bees: A South African study exploring the reluctance of women executives to promote other women in the workplace by Zogerah Johnson, MBA student, and Dr Babita Mathur-Helm (Babita.Mathur-Helm@usb.ac.za), lecturer in Change Management, both of the University of Stellenbosch Business School. The article was published in the South African Journal of Business Management Volume 42, Number 4 (December 2011). The full article is available at http://www.journals.co.za/ej/ejour–busman.html

The article is based on Johnson's MBA research report titled, Investigating the existence of the Queen Bee syndrome within the banking industry of South Africa, supervised by Mathur-Helm and presented to the University of Stellenbosch in 2010.

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