At a recent event celebrating women in technology, Tina Fey had some words of wisdom for women looking to succeed in a male-dominated industry. Fey said:

Don’t get too comfortable being the only woman in the room. Remember to try to find opportunities to bring other women in – to throw the rope down. I try to tell young women – don’t be tricked into thinking that you’re in the field to compete with other women.”

Unpacking the So-Called Queen Bee Mentality

For a male-dominated industry like financial services, Fey’s words raise some interesting questions. Are the women in leadership positions within the industry working towards transforming the culture so that it will be better for women? Or are they more comfortable being the only female voice around the table?

According to a 2011 study out of Washington University, women that occupy a minority position in a select group of mostly men are more inclined to view women as a threat to their special status. Michelle Duguid, professor of organizational behavior at Washington University’s Olin Business School and author of “Female tokens in high-prestige work groups: Catalysts or inhibitors of group diversification?,” conducted three studies that showed women will “abdicate the opportunity to support highly or moderately qualified female candidates as potential work group peers” because these other women are viewed as threats.

Duguid writes:

“I believe that it is important to recognize that female tokens in high-prestige work groups face particular handicaps that may make it very difficult to advocate for other women. Hence, organizations should be wary of relying too heavily on female tokens to play a significant role in diversifying the top tiers.”

Debunking the Myth of the Queen Bee

Duguid’s findings are contradicted by a June 2012 study conducted by Catalyst which concludes that women who occupy leadership positions are more likely than their male peers to support and cultivate high-potential talent. In a press release announcing the study’s findings, Ilene Lang, President and CEO of Catalyst, said:

“This report dispels the misconception that women’s career advancement lags behind men’s because they don’t pay it forward to other women. It shows that women are in fact actively helping each other succeed. The notion that women executives are Queen Bees who are unwilling to support other women needs to be put to rest.”

A recent post from The Glass Hammer website raises issue with the Washington University study for “perpetuating negative stereotypes about women.” It goes on to challenge the veracity of Duguid’s results due to the fact that they are contradicted by the conclusions of the Catalyst report.

Moving Beyond Generalizations

The Catalyst report better reflects how executives operate in the corporate world because its conclusions are based upon surveys completed by actual executives, where Duguid’s conclusions were extrapolated from academic studies. However, calling Duguid’s conclusions invalid seems unnecessary. What should be prioritized is dispelling sweeping generalizations about the nature of women in the workplace.

It is crucial that those who support the advancement of women in the corporate world remember that women aren’t a monolithic entity. Each woman brings her own history, her own motivations, her own personality, her own power, and her own weaknesses to every job she has. Some women may feel threatened by female and male colleagues, while others may prioritize developing women and men with high-potential. It depends on the woman; it depends on the situation; and it depends on the corporate culture.

What I’m sure Lang and Duguid can agree on is that the trickle down effect that a small minority of women in leadership positions has on a company’s culture won’t truly translate into equality for women if there isn’t a wholehearted commitment to achieving gender balance at every level of the organization.

Were you mentored by a woman executive? How are you paying it forward by supporting the advancement of other women in your company?

Share this page!