Put your satin girl gang jacket back in the closet: A Columbia Business School study looking at 1,500 companies over two decades has found that the concept of the queen bee—the woman who hustles her way up the corporate ladder only to block other women from ascending behind her—is pure myth. The only thing keeping women out of the boardroom is other dudes.
If that’s hard to believe, it is probably because we have all grown so inured to the stereotype of female in-fighting across all aspects of human life that we’ve stopped questioning the idea that groups of women all blend into one giant bitchy resting face. Over at The Guardian, Viv Groskop dutifully notes that the notion of the mean girl and all her attendant mean-girl hierarchies—a social framework said to sprout in middle school and grow more vicious over time—is so common now in popular media (Mean Girls, Heathers, Clueless, Devil Wears Prada) that it has far surpassed the original notion of the corporate queen bee, which comes from a 1973 study. The mean girl narrative, she writes, has burrowed into our most deeply held notions about what it means to be female at any age. Then she lays her problem bare:
Worst of all, it has been accepted as some kind of truism: that given half a chance, women will be bitches – and in any given group there will be one bitch who is the biggest bitch of all. This makes for great drama. It is not so fun in real life. It’s also a dangerous mindset which keeps women in their little box, afraid to trust others and constantly on the look-out for someone more “senior” who is going to knife them in the back.
Instead, this survey suggests, women are held back not by each other but by men who don’t want them in the boardroom. … This is conspiracy theory time. Have women been blaming and fighting each other while ignoring what’s really holding them back? Who is the real enemy: us or them?
While that is also a longstanding criticism of feminism—women too busy being bitches to each other to form one single cohesive movement and take down “The Man”—a little closer look at the results of the survey help illuminate that us-or-them question. In a companion piece at The Guardian we learn that the study found that “where women had been appointed chief executive, other women were more likely to make it into senior positions.” However:
But when a woman had been given a senior role that was not the top position, the likelihood of other women following them to executive level fell by 50%, the academics found.
The research team said: “Women face an implicit quota, whereby firms seek to maintain a small number of women on their top management team, usually only one. While firms gain legitimacy from having women in top management, the value of this legitimacy declines with each woman.”
What this means then is that often a woman or two will be promoted upward by men for the sake of diversity and appearances, but after that, women are pretty much shit out of luck, or only moved into positions where they can’t do much to help other women beneath them.
But isn’t even thinking this way part of the problem, too? This idea that, in terms of mentoring, women owe something specific to other women and men owe something specific to other men— and that only when they are being uniquely generous would they pluck from outside their own for the greater good?
Groskop thinks so:
The problem with all this – and I’m really not sure the new survey helps – is that it encourages the sort of polarised black-and-white thinking that has ensured feminism has made far fewer strides over the past six decades than it should have done. Do any of us really behave “like a man” or “like a woman” at work in the 21st century? Yes, in movies – which are fictional! – we encounter people like Rizzo (Stockard Channing in Grease) or Regina (Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls). Yes, in the workplace these kinds of toxic people might exist from time to time. But in real life, nasty, narcissistic people are just as likely to be men as women. Similarly, surely gender is not ever going to predict the person most likely to help you out with good career advice.
Well, let’s not get too carried away here: Narcissists are more likely to be men. And women only hold 14 percent of top-five leadership slots at S&P 500 companies, so if you did want to predict who could help you out with career advice because they actually knew how to get to the top, you’d probably be statistically better off asking a man, no?
It would be nice if we could only promote the best candidate for any given position, but it’s not certain that it’s easy to even identify who that is. Gender bias is real, and really complex—reams of research of the sort that launched the Lean In movement find again and again that women are not promoted until they prove themselves, while men are promoted because they seem like they will get around to proving themselves eventually. And well before that, prescribed gender roles pressure women to downplay their own accomplishments anyway, even when the women are legitimately brilliant. Female surgical students grade themselves lower even when they’ve performed better than their male counterparts. Men are overestimated and over-encouraged from birth while girls are constantly asked to minimize themselves. All this is to say that even being identified as a good candidate for leadership while also being female is still rare.
This is why any woman with even a few years of a working life in hindsight can see that, sure, yeah, other women can be hell, but so can other men—and still, men have nearly all the power. As such theirs is a unique brand of hell to bring to the table, not the TV-friendly Queen Bee kind, but the kind that actually keeps you out of a promotion.
So while the idea of big bitches keeping smaller bitches out of positions of power while men run off with all the money is so much fun, it seems there simply aren’t enough women out there in positions of power to keep all the other women down—at least not at the volume that explains the dearth of female-led companies. Too bad! Would’ve made for a great, sexy catfight. In mud. Or at least wet t-shirts, am I right?
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Illustration by Tara Jacoby.