She Speaks is an original Shenomics series of dialogues between leading women from various disciplines on relevant issues pertaining to professional women in India.
There continues to be a lot of discussion about the two archetypes of women in the corporate world: the queen bee and the worker bee. The Queen Bee Syndrome describes a woman in a position of authority who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female. A report from the Credit Suisse Research Institute published in October 2016 reveals that companies with more female executives in decision-making positions continue to generate stronger market returns and superior profits, and contrary to conventional wisdom, women in leadership roles do not actively exclude other women from promotions to top management.
In a thought provoking chat, Shalu Manan, Vice president, People Functions at Genpact and Bidisha Banerjee, Chief Talent Development at the Future Group discuss if the ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’ is a myth or reality- in conversation with Bhavna Toor and Shonali Advani.
Bhavna Toor: Is the Queen Bee Syndrome real? Are women at the top not doing enough to help other women?
Shalu Manan: Let’s face it, you take a man and a woman at the same senior level, the woman is working much harder. She is working two jobs; she has responsibilities at home and at work. And, at work, she has to work harder to prove herself because there are fewer of us at the top. So, women may not always get the chance to help other women, even if they want to. That’s not to take away their responsibility to do so. We still have that responsibility. But, we have to be sensitive to the fact that she is already working harder than her male colleague; what more do you expect her to do?
I personally don’t read too much into the Queen Bee syndrome. Are there bad female bosses? Maybe. But, equally, there are bad male bosses as well. I’ve had male bosses, who are insecure, or who typecast you and put you in a box. I’d be much more concerned about those biases, especially since 80% of the bosses are men. On a Pareto principle, we’d be much better off putting our time and effort into addressing that than worrying about the 20 or so women in that position.
Bidisha Banerjee: Yes, the syndrome exists, though at an unconscious level. Women from childhood are taught to compete against each other to get a match or to find a life partner. This, in turn, becomes second nature to them and extends to the corporate world. Women unconsciously start looking at other women as a threat or as competition. Also, women who rise in the corporate world are busy managing several roles they play at home and at work that grooming or coaching another woman never becomes a priority. However, as more women make it to the top and there is more sponsorship from them for fellow capable women this syndrome, as we speak, is reducing.
QUEEN SIZED NUMBERS
From YE13 through mid-16, companies where women accounted for 25 percent of senior leadership outperformed at a compound annual growth rate of 2.8 percent.
This increased to 4.7 percent at companies where women comprised 33 percent of senior leadership; and then jumped to 10.3 percent at companies where more than 50 percent of senior leaders are women compared with a 1 percent annual decline for MSCI ACWI index over the same period. Source: CS Gender 3000: Progress in the Boardroom.
Bhavna: Do we need senior women to help or mentor other women?
Bidisha: Some of us do need coaching and mentoring because we may not have the benefit of the same background or education as others. Also, many women don’t ask for help. I have seen several cases where women don’t even know it’s okay to take help from others or to ask their spouses to step in because it’s ingrained in us from childhood to step back. That is why women need to make a conscious effort to mentor, support, coach and sponsor other women if they are credible, have the skills, and the ability to move up the leadership ladder.
Shalu: I agree. I like to give back to men and women equally, but maybe one should make an extra effort to help those who are quiet and under confident about their abilities. A lot of women don’t ask for help out of a lack of awareness or fear of being looked at differently. Also, a lot of women feel uncomfortable talking about their challenges with other men, and would prefer to speak to a woman. If women like us can help at whatever level or capacity, we should take it on, independent of the queen bee syndrome existing or not existing, but merely as a personal responsibility. It is about giving back. It’s about saying if I have been fortunate enough to get things, and learn things, then I want to give back. I’ve found whenever I’m confused and I reach out for help, there are enough men and women out there who are willing to give me advice; it is rare to come across someone who says no.
Bhavna: We keep referring to women as one big monolith. Are we sensitive to the diversity within women in corporate India?
Bidisha: Within India, within every state and community, there is an incredible amount of diversity. I’m not sure if we fully understand the needs of all these women. We are just scratching the surface. For instance, I know in many communities women do not feel comfortable with a male presence. Coming back to this Queen Bee thing, that’s where having a woman sponsor becomes important because many women feel a woman will understand them better.
Bhavna: I’m wondering if this question itself is biased? We never ask men, who make it to the top, whether they are helping other men. Why do we ask this of women leaders?
Shalu: I agree. I look at leaders the same way, irrespective of whether they are men or women. A leader is someone who inspires you, who can hold their ground, and take you through ups and downs. I find it odd that if a woman grows she needs to justify her place as a woman leader by displaying traits like empathy, care and affection, which are expected of all women. Why would I not expect that of any leader? Several of my male bosses have been as caring and as focused on what is best for me as anyone could be. They set me up to succeed. So, I’m not sure why we make a big deal out of this issue of queen bee syndrome.
Bhavna: So, what’s a better question to ask?
Shalu: Why not ask if competition and politics exist when you go up the ranks? And, the answer is yes. It affects men and women equally. If we are talking about improving diversity in companies we should look at how more leaders can sponsor women. How do we help men and women overcome personal biases and choose the best person for the job, irrespective of gender?
Shonali: How do we enable women to rise up the ranks?
Shalu: I think we need to think about how women in middle management, especially those who go through life changing events like marriage and kids, get the support they need. How do we create an ecosystem that enables them to work? If organizations come up with the right policies for a support system for women to stay in jobs, and both men and women at higher designations lead by example, then we don’t need to worry if the queen bee syndrome exists. People will get rewarded by virtue of merit.
I also think we need to include more men in the discussion. If 10 women get together and discuss their challenges, about not getting enough support or sponsorship, nothing changes. But, if they invite men to the discussion, and say, ‘these are three things that I want, and here are three things that I am prepared to do differently’, then maybe we can get somewhere. We need to move away from a victim mindset to a solution mindset, and take responsibility for ourselves.
Shonali: Do you see a willingness to learn, seek help and mentorship from millennials? Is there a problem on the other side?
Bidisha: I haven’t had any experience like that. The thing about millennial women, or millennials in general, is that they are quick to learn. If you give them room to grow, and give them work that’s engaging and adds value to the organization, they would love to work with you and learn from you.
Shalu: I agree with Bidisha. What came to my mind is the classical stereotype. Our parents think as kids we don’t listen to them and as parents we think our kids don’t listen to us. We think there is a generation and a communication gap that can’t be filled. I don’t think just because they are millennials their propensity to learn or be coached is any less than that of older generations. If anything, I have found millennial women to be more hungry, have more fire in the belly and be a lot more risk-taking. I’ve never seen anyone saying I know it all.
About the Authors
Bhavna Toor is the Founder and CEO of Shenomics, a Mindful Leadership platform for aspiring women. She helps women realize their highest professional aspirations, and believes in daring greatly, leading boldly and living mindfully.
Shonali Advani is a trained journalist, having worked previously with leading publications such as the Economic Times and the Entrepreneur magazine. She is now a freelance writer and startup consultant. When not working, she is dreaming up her next travel destination.