Given the "queen bee" stereotype, people have often posited that the woman at the top might be trying to hold other women back from joining her. Yet the researchers suggest that their findings instead suggest the culprit is "implicit quotas," in which companies feel pressure to add women to their uppermost ranks to improve their public image — but once they've added one, they feel like they've done their job.
"They try pretty hard to get a woman on their top management team, but then they will stop," said David Ross, a co-author of the study. "What I think our paper shows is that it's going to be harder for the low number of women in top management to be a problem that solves itself."
Part of what supported their finding was that in companies where a woman was the CEO, rather than just a senior member of the team, other women actually had somewhat better chances of holding other top positions. "[If] women are doing each other in," Ross said, "you'd expect to see it the most when women are CEO."
The paper, which is set to be published in the Strategic Management Journal, first got attention a few months ago but resurfaced this week since its findings will be presented at an upcoming conference of girls' schools in the United Kingdom. Some headlines have said this research shows the "queen bee syndrome" is a myth, but Ross says the idea of implicit quotas doesn't exactly disprove the other argument, it just weakens it.
"We don't know if the queen bee syndrome exists, but if it exists it could well exist because of sexism," Ross said. If women are competitively vying for top positions, it's "not arising from some kind of innate female quality, but from the behavior of the men and their colleagues."
Meanwhile, there's other evidence that women may actually "pay it forward" to the next generation even more than men do. A 2012 study from the research firm Catalyst found, for instance, that 73 percent of the female mentors it studied were helping develop other women, whereas only 30 percent of the male mentors were doing the same.
Women, though, while perhaps more likely to help other women, aren't necessarily more likely to be in mentorship positions to begin with. A survey last year from the human resources consulting firm Development Dimensions International found that as many as 20 percent of the women it surveyed had never been asked to be mentors (despite that most held management roles), and more than 50 percent had only been asked a few times.
Sharon Mavin, director of the business school at University of Roehampton in London, has also found in her research that women are readily open to helping and mentoring other women. The problem isn't an unwillingness to help, she said in an interview, but that when there are only one or two women at the top, "there's not enough momentum for the culture that's already been established to change.
Mavin, who has also written about the queen bee phenomenon, added: "For a woman to survive in that context, there's a lot of strategies she can take. But a lot of them mean assimilating into that culture rather than changing it."