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. Yet women can still pay a price when they advocate for other women. In a recent study of more than 300 executives, when men promoted diversity, they received slightly higher performance ratings. They were good guys who cared about breaking down the old boys’ network. When female executives promoted diversity, they were punished with significantly lower performance ratings. They were perceived as nepotistic — trying to advantage their own group.
Queen bees exist, but they’re far less common than we think. Women aren’t any meaner to women than men are to one another. Women are just expected to be nicer. We stereotype men as aggressive and women as kind. When women violate those stereotypes, we judge them harshly.
It’s time to stop punishing women and minorities for promoting diversity. In the meantime, there are many ways that women can help one another without hurting themselves. There’s no penalty for women mentoring women — and when they do, they’re more likely to be seen by their protégés as role models. They share advice about how to break glass ceilings and escape sticky floors, which helps the group and costs them nothing but time. When a woman’s accomplishments are overlooked, other women can celebrate them, showing that they care and giving public credit where it’s due.
And it’s time for all of us to stop judging the same behavior more harshly when it comes from a woman rather than a man. Women can disagree — even compete — and still have one another’s backs.
Read more from Sherly Sandberg & Adam Grant: