Queen bee in the office: who gets stung?

Female bosses get a bad rap. There’s even a word for them. No, not that word. I am talking about the term “queen bee”.

The queen bee is the female boss who strives to protect her power at all costs. She distances herself from other women at the office, and rather than promote her junior counterparts, she refuses to help them rise through the ranks. But according to a new study by Belle Derks of Leiden University in the Netherlands, such behaviour may not necessarily be her fault. Rather, it is the product of an inherently sexist work environment.

Derks, who has spent a good portion of her career researching how people respond to sexism, says women are often held to a different standard than men; traits that would be seen favourably in men, such as competitiveness, are seen negatively when women exhibit them.

“Another problem is that once one or two women do reach positions of power, they often serve to legitimise the unequal opportunities for women below them. ‘If they were able to do it,’ it will be said, ‘why can’t other women achieve the same thing?’ [This is why] placing only one or two women at the top will do more harm than good, because they might turn into queen bees, while simultaneously suggesting that sexism is not an issue.”

In her study, published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, Derks and her colleagues test whether queen-bee behaviour might be a response to a male-dominated environment. She and her colleagues gave a questionnaire to senior women in police departments in Dutch cities. One of the first questions was about how much they identified with other women in the police force.

For the experiment, half the participants were told to write about a situation at work where they thought being a woman was to their detriment, or they were discriminated against. The others were asked to write about a time when their gender was no issue, and they were valued for their personal abilities.

Next, the women were asked about their leadership styles, how different they thought they were from other women, and whether they felt gender bias was an issue in the police force.

How women responded to these questions depended on the strength of their gender identity at work. Women who had been primed to think about gender bias answered like queen bees – that they had a masculine leadership style, that they were very different from other women, and gender bias was not a problem – only if they had started out by saying they identified weakly with women at work. Those who identified strongly with their gender at work had the opposite response: when they thought about gender bias, they said afterwards that they were inclined to mentor other women.

The fact that only certain women engage in queen-bee behaviour, and only after they have been primed to think about gender bias, suggests that it is not sufficient for organisations  simply to put women in high-level positions and expect them to mentor other women, Derks argues.

“Being a token female executive in a male-dominated environment places women in precarious positions where they have to show that they can play well with the boys rather than mentor the women below them. This will lead them to adopt more masculine behaviour, and lowers their willingness to be associated with other women and not ‘rock the boat’ by talking about improving opportunities for women.”

This dynamic changes when there are a critical number of women in the higher echelons of an organisation, because they no longer have to choose between being a successful executive and being a woman, she says.

“Combating sexism at work does not start by blaming women and men for being prejudiced, but by doing more to coach female employees to pursue a career and achieve leadership positions. It is often said that women are less ambitious than men and are less able to deal with stress; however, this does not take into account the stress and demotivation that is triggered by having to deal with subtle sexism and a lack of female role models at work.

“Companies will become less sexist if a significant percentage of women take in executive positions. This will reduce the pay-off for queen-bee behaviour, reduce the ‘think manager, think male’ association that currently exists, and inspire women in lower ranks to achieve the same.”

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