Miss Small's big tips: A closer look at Queen Bee syndrome in the City

Female rivalry is barring many women from the boardroom. A change of attitude, not a quota fix, is in order

Earlier this year Lord Davies called on the UK’s top companies to tackle gender diversity at board level and encouraged firms to aim for a minimum of 25 per cent female representation by 2015. The catalyst for this call to action was shocking research revealing that 18 FTSE 100 companies and nearly half of all FTSE 250 companies had no female directors on the board.

According to the research it will take 70 years to achieve an equal number of women directors in the FTSE 100. To put this into context, in that same period of time in recent history advancements have included space exploration and landing on the moon, the birth of the internet, the Apple phenomenon and the election of the first black American president. Seeing more women join the list of female FTSE 100 CEOs, of which there are only five currently – Katherine Garrett-Cox (Alliance Trust), Dame Majorie Scardino (Pearson), Cynthia Carroll (Anglo American), Angela Ahrendts (Burberry) and Alison Cooper (Imperial Tobacco) – should not be such a hard feat.

Unsurprisingly, as a result of the research the need for quotas on the number of women in senior roles is being debated across many industries. However, rather than quotas it’s my firm belief that we need to take a closer look at “Queen Bee” syndrome, recently identified by Leiden University in the Netherlands.

“We undoubtedly need to address how we treat other women in business. Many still identify other women as their biggest rivals and barrier to progression, often resulting in unnecessary bad business practice”

Apparently this syndrome presents itself among women who reach the top of their profession. It can be characterised by women who distance themselves from other females and refuse to help them rise through the ranks; after 10 years as a City trader it’s a trait I recognise in a lot of my former colleagues.

Psychologists put this behaviour down to how male dominated and sexist the industry is. All the way through my career, from being a junior equity sales trader for a Nordic investment bank to trading European equities, I clearly remember the lack of support from senior women. A response to the testosterone-fuelled environment, I won’t be the first or last to recognise it at its worst in the City.

We undoubtedly need to address how we treat other women in business. Many still identify other women as their biggest rivals and barrier to progression, often resulting in unnecessary bad business practice. Throughout the corporate world the best woman can be better than the best man, but the worst woman is who we are all compared to.

Some companies are already forging ahead, such as Marks & Spencer with 12 female directors and Aviva which has 23 per cent female representation. However, the proposed quick fix of quotas, if other companies do not follow their lead, will only backfire. I think quotas are demeaning to women. Instead we should encourage, educate, enable and empower young women to make a difference and sustain the changes.

Apparently nearly three-quarters of women believe that a glass ceiling still exits. But blaming this supposed obstacle is a very negative and defeatist attitude to adopt.

Women have to take some responsibility and stop conforming to stereotypes – Queen Bees included – to show the world that we are appointed on merit, not because of company targets and gender alone.

Katie Small, managing director, Mercury West Associates

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