Do Female Leaders Help Other Women in the Workplace?

Topic(s): fairness, gender, leadership
Publication: Leadership Quarterly, 2018
Article: The queen bee: A myth? The effect of top-level female leadership on subordinate females
Authors: P.R. Arvate, G.W. Galilea, I. Todescat
Reviewed by: Emma Williamson

In organizations across many industries, men often hold the majority of top-level leadership positions. This is in part due to widely-held stereotypes that women are missing masculine characteristics (like assertiveness and risk-taking) necessary to make an effective leader. However, researchers are unsure whether the women who manage to succeed in male-dominated environments contribute to or reduce gender disparities in organizations.


Some research has indicated that female leadership has a negative effect on the career advancement of other women within the organization. According to the “queen bee phenomenon,” women will adjust to the masculine culture in their organization by distancing themselves from other women. These “queen bees” do so in order to prove they have the chops to attain a senior position. Research supporting this effect has found that female leaders are hostile and competitive towards their female employees and in some cases, will undermine their employees’ careers and prevent them from moving up the corporate ladder. But, wouldn’t women consider other women as their natural allies? 

Recent evidence has called into question the accuracy of the queen bee phenomenon. It appears that some organizations with top female leaders have more women overall in leadership positions. This indicates that women may actually be supporting female employees in their careers and reducing gender differences in the organization.

So, which is it? Do women in leadership positions aid or hinder the career development of their female employees?


To answer this question, researchers (Arvate, Galilea, & Todescat, 2018) investigated what happened when female mayors were elected in Brazilian municipalities. By examining how many female managers were appointed after these women were elected, the researchers were able to assess how female leaders influenced the gender makeup of their organization over the span of multiple years.

An analysis of the data revealed an increase in the ratio of women to men chosen as top-managers by female leaders, with a greater increase when the woman had been in power for more time. These findings suggest that the queen bee phenomenon is either less impactful than the “role model effect” or may fail to exist altogether. The role model effect indicates that women serve as mentors to their female employees. Female role-models can inspire and encourage other women at the organization by lifting stereotypes and bridging the wage gap. Accordingly, the researchers propose women in leadership positions are better characterized as “regal leaders” and not queen bees.


The researchers say this study will help organizations understand how females in leadership positions may have a positive impact on other women, as well as the organization as a whole. By serving as role models and increasing opportunities for other women, female leaders help increase equality within their workplace. However, women must first be given managerial discretion and the power to make consequential decisions, as the female mayors were in the study. Organizations must allow this level of autonomy for female leaders to have the most positive impact.


Arvate, P. R., Galilea, G. W. & Todescat, I. (2018). The queen bee: A myth? The effect of top-level female leadership on subordinate females. The Leadership Quarterly,