Why The Queen Bee Theory Is BS

Copious amounts of research proves that women can and do support each other to ascend the leadership ladder.

Why The Queen Bee Theory Is BS
Portrait of Queen Victoria in her coronation robes via Wikimedia Commons

The path to executive leadership can be paved with stumbling blocks for women.


The business case for women in the C-suite is strong. But the impact of being promoted into roles that don’t directly impact the bottom line, or are completely overlooked, add layers to the glass ceiling.

Some research even suggested that women themselves were to blame for their lack of achievement. A study from the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business indicated that women reporting to female managers even experienced a “slightly negative” impact on their salaries. Workers who have felt the sting of an insensitive female boss, in particular, have contributed to the derogatory narrative of “Queen Bee” syndrome.

This is where Sheryl Sandberg leans in to dispel the myths and disgruntled rumblings.

As Facebook’s COO, Sandberg is the most powerful female executive at the world’s largest social network. As such, she started several movements, most notably

The Queen Bee Myth

In an opinion piece she wrote for the New York Times along with Wharton professor Adam Grant, Sandberg takes aim at the queen bee theory that suggests that because women leaders are perceived as competitive and not naturally supportive of each other, a female senior manager has a more negative impact on the other women trying to climb the career ladder.


Persistent bias drives much of this behavior in our current workplace culture, Sandberg and Grant write. An experiment conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia asked survey participants to report on conflicts between same-gender and mixed-gender opponents. “When men argue, it’s a healthy debate. When women argue . . . meow! It’s a catfight,” Sandberg and Grant say.

“Statistically that isn’t true,” they write.

Women Are Helping, Not Holding Each Other Back

While it was true that when one woman reached senior management, the second was 51% less likely to ascend the ranks, research shows that the person in the way was a male chief.

The two cite statistical analysis published in the Strategic Management Journal that used data on the top management of Standard & Poor’s 1,500 companies over 20 years.

“When a woman was made chief executive, the opposite was true,” Sandberg and Grant write. “In those companies, a woman had a better chance of joining senior management than when the chief executive was a man.”


The two cite other research in support of women offering a hand up to other women on the ladder. One study on corporate boards published in the Academy of Management Journal found that women on boards are less likely to be mentored unless there is another woman director.

Having female directors also increases the chances of women getting to the executive level, according to another study from researchers at Northwestern and the University of Virginia.

The Price Of Advocating For Each Other

Unfortunately, women pay a price for advocating for other women. “When female executives promoted diversity, they were punished with significantly lower performance ratings,” according to another study out of the University of Colorado.

The good news is that additional research proves that support does have its upside. One study from Marquette University indicates that women who mentor other women are elevated to the status of a role model in the eyes of their mentees.

Another study published in the Negotiation Journal shows that when women band together in support of another woman who is asserting herself at the bargaining table, the backlash against her for negotiating is lessened.


The solution, as Sandberg and Grant write, is simple.

“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.”

via the New York Times

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.