Queen Bees Sting

How good are female leaders at mentoring the next generation?

Back Commentary May 2, 2016 By Allison Joy

Mentoring the next generation of leaders is essential to a thriving economy. But as you’ll read in one of our May features, “A Good Mentor is Hard to Find” (by Vanessa Richardson) it’s not always easy — particularly for women — to find a female mentor. 

A number of factors can contribute to this difficulty: Most obvious, the simple lack of women in executive positions. The 2015-2016 UC Davis Study of California Women Business Leaders found that for every woman leading a large state firm, there were seven men. But I think it goes beyond that. 

The term “queen bee” as it applies to the workforce was coined in 1974 by University of Michigan researchers (two men, one woman), referring to the phenomenon of successful female professionals who were more likely to endorse gender stereotypes. But recent studies by Catalyst and a joint study by the University of Maryland and Columbia School of Business suggest that the queen bee is gradually losing her buzz, as female leaders make more of an  effort to promote and support young women just starting their careers. Then again, a 2011 survey of women done by the American Management Association found that a staggering 95 percent of women felt undermined at times by other women professionally, so … queen bees surely aren’t extinct. 

I’ll admit, my best mentors have been men, and I am grateful for their unwavering support and guidance. I’ve also experienced the confusion and frustration when a female collaborator turned competitive, when a hand that could have opened a door instead shut it in my face. 

And I’m not alone. Local female movers and shakers with whom I spoke had similar stories: a female mentor turned into a frenemy when the mentee started gaining wider recognition for her skills — instead of receiving a promotion that seemed inevitable, the mentee ended up leaving her firm, jilted. Another told me the tale of a former boss who, when hearing her female employee would be leaving for a new, more lucrative job, responded by crushing the opportunity and ensuring the offer was removed from the table. Why can’t we all just get along? 

Related: There are three types of young professionals — and one worth mentoring

All the young women I talked to were careful to stress one point: They didn’t feel that these older women were being intentionally malicious, but instead that there was some sort of subconscious threat, fear or even resentment at play. I’m in that gray area between being an old millennial and a young gen-Xer, and so my career climb has likely been quite different than that of a female boomer now at the top of her game. Her glass ceiling was lower, the ladder she climbed even more fraught with obstacles. She likely had to make certain sacrifices I simply haven’t and never will. For a female executive to take maternity leave now is much different than when most clubs belonged to the boys. Speaking up in the boardroom today requires less screaming to be heard. But perhaps this progress is a little hard to swallow for the women who still live with sacrifices made not so long ago. 

There is a flipside, too: Perhaps younger female employees have their own unfair expectations when dealing with female leadership. A 2007 study out of Syracuse University that ran in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that all employees tend to expect more empathy from female leaders than male, and judge accordingly if they find the trait lacking. So while a male boss who is brusque and authoritative is perceived as the norm (even respectable), even young women expect their female bosses to be nurturing and kind. 

I’m lucky to have a staff that includes a number of intelligent, talented and driven young women (and men), as well as a woman at the helm with years of industry experience. We don’t always see the world, or our work, the same way — but we value one another in the pursuit of our common goal. Younger women need the path that was forged for them by their female superiors, in addition to guidance on how to keep moving forward; older generations of professional women need the younger ones to succeed in order to achieve greater gender equality. 

But letting go of the threat has to start at the top, and continuing to pave the way means recognizing and rewarding the talent and drive of other young women — even if their journeys are much different than our own.

Have you ever had a mentorship relationship fizzle? Tell us about it in the comments: 


Pam Marrone (not verified)May 3, 2016 - 12:58pm

This is a tough subject. I have experienced this Queen Bee syndrome. But the other way around happens as well. A female executive mentor spends years helping and mentoring a female 'up and comer' only to have them be ungrateful and extremely disloyal. Also as mentioned, women leaders are judged differently (more harshly) than men. It gets complicated if the mentee wants to assert herself in a way that is at odds with company strategy or goals, then the mentor can be unfairly labeled as Queen Bee when it is just business.

Laura Good (not verified)May 12, 2016 - 9:15am

I'm at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation and I have to say that I've never experienced the Queen Bee Sting. The women I've worked for and with were always willing to mentor me and help me develop the skills and relationships I needed to advance in my career. And as an occasional mentor or at least coach to younger women, I've always been excited about their progress. I wonder if certain industries are more fraught with this behavior? Most of my career was with companies in the electronics industry but I also have "done time" in the nonprofit world.