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Gender in the Workplace

Queen Bees, Mentors, and the Female Boss Problem

Queen Bees, Mentors, and the Female Boss Problem

Photograph by Peter Leverman/Gallery Stock

Female Bosses. They’re a type, aren’t they? At least that’s what dueling research findings seem to suggest. You either get the ones who hang with their sisters at some women’s conference and then offload a project to run home to their kids, or some alpha female whose stiletto seems aimed at kicking you back down the career ladder. If they work in a male-dominated industry, they benefit from more slack than guys when it comes to making mistakes, according to research by Christian Thoroughgood of Pennsylvania State University. Linguistics expert Judith Baxter has found they’re not even funny: More than 80 percent of quips from senior women were met with silence in her research, while 90 percent of the men’s jokes got an immediate laugh.

And working for a female boss if you’re a woman? Don’t get the experts started. Women with female bosses report more headaches and anxiety than those who report to men, a University of Toronto study found. German researchers found they suffer higher levels of depression. Maybe that’s because female bosses direct their hostility toward other women more than 70 percent of the time, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, while men are more inclined to make everyone feel miserable. Then again, consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman surveyed 7,280 leaders last year and found women notably better at mentoring, motivating, and driving for results (PDF). Put them in charge, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found, and other women in the company end up making more money.

Now comes a June 12 study from Catalyst, a nonprofit group that focuses on expanding opportunities for women in business. As part of its ongoing study of  742 MBA grads, it found that women are not only better than men at helping others—women and men—move up the ladder, but those who sponsored others or developed others earned an additional $25,075 in compensation from 2008 to 2010. Moreover, 73 percent of those mentors are especially inclined to help women, while only 30 percent of the men were.

The goal of this study, says Catalyst Chief Executive Officer Ilene Lang, is to “prove the value of paying it forward” and thereby debunk the queen bee stereotype that female bosses generally set out to undermine female underlings. “There is this myth out there that women don’t help other women and are a factor in holding them back,” Lang says.

So does this undermine new research from Olin Business School professor Michelle Duguid finding that women who are surrounded by male colleagues when they reach senior management are less inclined to help female newcomers? Perhaps. Maybe there’s a rational fear of appearing to show favoritism when you’re the only woman sitting at the table. It’s a concern that anyone in a visible minority would likely have when another member of their group comes on the scene.

With women so under-represented in the senior ranks of business, it’s no wonder the female boss’s mysterious DNA is so prodded and picked apart. As the numbers increase, researchers may find they’re surrounded by nurturers, queen bees, and other types that display the same breadth of leadership qualities as do the men who fought so hard to get there.

Brady is a senior editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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