Mark Van Vugt Ph.D.

Naturally Selected

Did Hillary Clinton Fall Victim to the Queen Bee Effect?

Psychological reasons why women don't get the top jobs in business and politics

Posted Nov 14, 2016

Hillary Clinton’s failed mission to become the next U.S. president may be symptomatic of a broader shift in attitudes toward women leaders in both politics and business worldwide. The aim to appoint more women as top executives in business seems to be failing internationally. Only 24 of the top 500 American companies have a female CEO while the percentage of women in senior leadership positions amounts to 14 percent. The situation is worse in my country, the Netherlands, which prides itself as gender-neutral. The annual Female Board Index shows that the number of senior women in listed companies has decreased since last year: Among the 212 top executives, only 15 are women, a meager 7 percent.  

Companies, governments, and women network organizations are rightly in distress. They have not succeeded in breaking through the glass ceiling yet. Why? A silly question is whether women are suitable for such complex and demanding top jobs in business or politics. Internationally, the percentage of women students at universities—where people in top functions generally are recruited from—has been growing steadily for years. And, it is increasingly important in top management functions to have excellent verbal, social, and emotional qualities. Many psychological studies show that, on average, women are stronger on those fronts than men.

A more valid question is whether women aspire to such high-flying executive functions. That is where I add some doubts. In the university classes I teach I pose the following question: Would you rather have a job that is interesting or a job that provides a lot of status and money? Most female students choose the former option, while most male students go for the latter.

A third explanation is that ambitious women are held back by male senior executives. There is much evidence of gender discrimination in the business world, though it often happens in a subtle manner. From social psychology studies, we know that people who share the same norms, values, and interests are more likely to become friends. It is called "similarity-attraction" and may lead to predominantly male members of the board preferring other men.

Differences in leadership styles could be another cause. On average, female leaders adopt a more communal style—being focused more on cooperation and harmony within their team—while male leaders are more assertive, dominant, and agentic. Therefore, the contributions of male leaders are maybe more noticeable within organizations, and especially among their superiors are deemed more promotable.

The final explanation is that aspiring women leaders are not only held back by men, but also by other women. This is known as the Queen Bee effect, which refers to the difficulty encountered by women to cooperate with each other in hierarchical relationships.  

Research by developmental psychologist Joyce Benenson shows a remarkable difference in how girls and boys compete. In one experiment, she investigated the differences in cooperation between groups of boys and girls around the age of five. Only one person at a time was able to watch a fun cartoon while the others had to make sure the button on the projector worked and the light was on. Among the boys, the time for watching the cartoon was divided as much as possible and the one who succeeded in getting more watch time, the dominant one, gained prestige. The opposite occurred in girls. The most dominant girl was actually liked less by the other girls and—as supposed to the boys who kept competing for more watch time—the girls withdrew and went on to do something else. Benenson and primatologist Richard Wrangham also investigated scientific publications in American Psychology and counted how often women in hierarchical relationships (professor, assistant professor) published articles together. When adjusting for sample sizes, women in unequal power positions published three times less than their male counterparts in hierarchical relationships.

123rf Used with Permission
Source: 123rf Used with Permission

In sum, the Queen Bee syndrome—popularized in the movies "Mean Girls" and "The Devil Wears Prada" may constitute an altogether different obstacle to the promotion of women leaders. Perhaps it was also responsible for the defeat of Hillary Clinton— the ultimate Queen Bee—who gathered fewer votes from women than everyone expected. Finding ways around the Queen Bee is a challenge for policy makers and social scientists.

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