In 2012, Catalyst published a research report on high-potential professional women, Leaders Pay It Forward, which showed very strong evidence that women “pay it forward,” mentoring and sponsoring others while also receiving tangible career benefits for investing in the development of future leaders. In essence, the myth of the Queen Bee was busted. But “busted” may not be entirely accurate, according to this recent article by Olga Khazan that appeared in The Atlantic.
In it Khazan asks, “Why do women bully each other at work?” She presents two competing theories as answers. The first is based on evolution: “Women undermine one another because they have always had to compete for mates and for resources for their offspring.” In many ways, the law of the jungle makes sense to me, but the second concept seems to focus on women simply reacting to their own reality: “When there appear to be few opportunities for women, research shows, women begin to view their gender as an impediment; they avoid joining forces, and sometimes turn on one another.” For women, it seems, it may be a case of survival of the fittest and lord of the flies. So much for strength in numbers, eh?
Considering all of this, I continue to wonder about this Queen Bee persona. Why are women oftentimes characterized as the villain? Is it because, given women’s lesser numbers, this Queen is easier to spot? I bet if we looked hard enough (or even at all), we would also find King Wasps (the shouter, the liar, the frat boy, the I-Banker Masters of the Universe, etc.) at least as often as we find Queen Bees. The simple fact, in my mind at least, is that it is difficult if not impossible to believe that you can be what you cannot see. If there’s no one like you “up there,” it’s not likely you’ll get there without either a patron saint sponsoring you or getting your hands dirty with a little workplace foul play.
Having worked with Catalyst Supporters for more than 12 years, I have seen plenty of workplace behaviors— supportive as well as destructive—from both women and men. However, I’ve also observed exceptional efforts to help advance women. Through Catalyst Award Winners and Champions—which honor global initiatives at some of the world’s largest, most recognized companies—best-in-class examples show what’s needed to make intentional change and to bring diversity, inclusion, and gender parity to life in the workplace. These companies are exceptions to the rule—working hard to ensure that each employee gets a fair shot, while mitigating the systemic barriers and behaviors that can lead to exclusion and hold women back from getting a fair chance.
In a time when there seems to be trouble all around the world, I believe it’s important to reinvest our efforts, intentionally, to being inclusive allies to our colleagues. The rising tide lifts all boats, right? If we are managers with roles to fill, or team members who can suggest talent on projects, we should look broadly, deeply, and often for opportunities to align with colleagues who do not and should not always look like us.
Our workplace relationships can be about women (and men) helping one another navigate the ever-evolving, and ever-competitive, workplace. Again, referring back to Catalyst’s Leaders Pay It Forwardresearch, we know that mentoring and sponsoring across differences indeed pays off—and in ways we may not have expected. Most interestingly, the report found that men who were sponsored by a woman went on to mentor, champion, and sponsor female colleagues even more frequently than they did their male colleagues, which is critical for women who have less access to influential others.
I say, rather than perpetuate unhelpful gender-based stereotypes (and yes I know, stereotypes exist for a reason), let’s instead focus on something a lot more beneficial for us all—taking the mentoring and sponsorship that we’ve been given and paying it forward to those around us. Let’s eliminate the zero-sum thinking that drives us to be complacent or act selfishly for fear of losing out or giving up our privilege.