women@work

The real buzz about the ‘Queen Bee’ syndrome

Special to The Globe and Mail

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It’s time to stop the blame game. You know, the one where women in hushed tones complain to each other that senior female executives play a role in the gender gap by not supporting more junior women or even thwarting their rise. It’s often referred to as the “Queen Bee” syndrome, meaning that there is only enough room for one woman at the top.

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I hear it all the time, and each time it adds to my disappointment since the claim itself hinders the advancement of women.

It reinforces the belief that women should blame each other for their lack of professional growth, and deters women from seeking mentorship opportunities for fear of a backlash: How quickly would you reach out to a mentor if you expected to be greeted by Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada channelling the Mean Girls?

Earlier this week, a new report suggested the reality is much different.

An analysis conducted by Catalyst, a not-for-profit group supporting women in business, found that 65 per cent of women who received career development support were now mentoring new talent, compared with 56 per cent of men.

Of those women, 73 per cent focused their energies on women, compared with only 30 per cent of men who developed female talent.

But here’s the juicy part: Not only are women offering their support, but these mentors also earned $25,075 more from 2008 to 2010 compared with their non-mentoring colleagues. That compensation discrepancy holds true for both men and women.

“Leaders who invest in talent see a payback for paying it forward,” noted Deborah Gillis, senior vice-president of membership and global operations at Catalyst in Toronto.

Ms. Gillis attributed the corollary between mentoring and salary to the higher profile the role provides. That higher visibility creates a following, which leads to both recognition and rewards.

The realization that supporting junior employees makes good sense for a mentor’s career might do wonders to help eradicate Queen Bee behaviour. However, it’s not a new concept.

“At Accenture, women who advance other women, also advance themselves,” said Lisa Grill, senior manager in the retail group at consulting firm Accenture, who also leads the company’s women’s initiatives in Canada.

“I learned early on that if I am going to mentor anyone, a woman or a man, I’m going to make sure someone knows what I am doing,” she added.

Personal benefit aside, Ms. Grill said that offering career support to other employees is part of Accenture’s “DNA” and pays off in many ways. She recalls being mentored early in her career by a female senior partner who spent considerable time teaching her how to prepare and deliver a speech

“It still sticks out in my mind that she took the time and the energy to teach me everything,” Ms. Grill said. She now takes the time to mentor others on a variety of issues but particularly on celebrating their successes, adding, “it’s important to convey wins to other people.”

The notion of a Queen Bee syndrome is also contradicted by the sheer number of examples of women who received valuable mentorship to gain traction in their career, and then did the same for others later in their career.

Alexandra Blum, executive director of brand development and global partnerships at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Inc., recalls how the female president of a publishing company she once worked for reinforced the importance of understanding financial statements.

“She quizzed me all the time. Sometimes it was after a flight to London or in the taxi on the way to a meeting. She was relentless,” Ms. Blum recalled.

She said that gaining a deeper understanding of financial statements added to her marketability both inside out and outside the organization. Now, it’s her turn and Ms. Blum mentors a few MBA graduates every year.

So I challenge women to consider their own career and see if they cannot single out at least one person who played a role in their success, and even consider how mentoring others might have paid off personally.

The Catalyst report might take the sting out of the notion of a Queen Bee syndrome, but it’s our job to kill the buzz and not allow a younger generation to adopt a jaded viewpoint.

“We have a new generation of professional women for whom [the Queen Bee syndrome] is not their reality. By continuing to talk about it, we perpetuate the myth,” said Tonie Chaltas, chief operating officer at Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada in Toronto.

“So let’s focus on the things that matter to them: fair pay, recognition, skills development, work-life balance, and giving them opportunities to shine.”

 

Follow on Twitter: @LeahEichler

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