Women in the Workplace – Are women their own worst enemies?

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada

When talking with men in the workplace (and even some women) about why women are not making it to the CEO level, I sometimes heard the phrase, “Women are their own worst enemy.”

I bristled every time I heard this remark. I had certainly seen women behaving badly toward other women, and in fact had been the victim of a particularly vicious woman. But certainly this was a singular occurrence, right? What men were doing to hold women back, either consciously or unconsciously, was much worse, right?

It turns out there may be some truth to that quote. In fact, it has been given a name: the Queen Bee syndrome.

Before I go on, let me say this: while this article argues that the Queen Bee does still exist in our workplaces today, my studies show that this plays just a small role in keeping women from reaching the top of organizations. There are many other forces, discussed in previous and future posts, that are bigger culprits. However, it is important that women are aware of the Queen Bee syndrome so they can both prevent themselves from becoming one and protect themselves against them.

First, let’s define Queen Bee syndrome. The term was first introduced in a paper by G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayartne, and C. Tavris in 1973. A Queen Bee is a woman who has risen to at least some level of power and then acts to protect her position, treating female subordinates more critically than male subordinates.

Hollywood has given us several examples of Queen Bees, several of which have become cult classics. Films such as Heathers and Mean Girls show what this phenomenon looks like in high school. Beyond high school we have The Devil Wears Prada, Clueless or countless others. In each of these films, women who are in power go to considerable lengths to keep other women from reaching their level. In this context, it is almost a shame that the Queen Bee makes for such great movies.

In the corporate world, most often the Queen Bee operates from a position of scarcity, believing that there is space for only one woman at the top. This means that the target of her protectionist actions are most likely other women. At the very least, she does nothing to support other women. At the worst, she actively works to thwart the advancement of other women in the firm. Most often, she shows incivility and rudeness to other women in the workplace.

Some social scientists have suggested that the Queen Bee sees the only way of reaching the top is to act like the men who have gone before her. In this way, she overemphasizes the male trait of disliking women – or more generally, the feminine stereotype. She sees “feminine” as a form of failure.

The discussion on whether the Queen Bee still exists in today’s workplace is hotly debated in academic institutions and in the press. Some say she still exists. Others say the Queen Bee is now extinct. A study in 2015 by the Columbia Business School showed that the Queen Bee was now nothing more than a myth. The same results were found in a Brazilian study conducted in 2018, looking at 8.3mil workers across the world.

And yet, a study done at the University in Arizona in 2018 is cited repeatedly in the news, with varying titles such as, “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee,” or “Proof that Queen Been Syndrome Exists in the Workplace.” The original article was titled, “Incivility at Work: Is Queen Bee Syndrome Getting Worse?” In this study, it was shown that women are more rude and more uncivil to other women in the workplace.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, had an interesting and provocative response to this study. She claimed that women are held to different standards, and that when they are not “nice,” they are seen as uncivil when men are not. This could be true – there is certainly plenty of evidence to show that women are punished when they act outside of their stereotypical roles. Because of this, and our tendency to quickly judge, we should exercise considerable restraint when naming an individual as a Queen Bee.

That said, my personal experience shows that there is a strong case to be made that Queen Bees still exist.

What is behind this Queen Bee syndrome? It is largely attributable to a lack of confidence and security in female leaders. They may have faced

So, are there still Queen Bees out there in the world?

My personal experience, and first hand stories from women I have interviewed and spoken with say that yes, the Queen Bee is alive and well. Sometimes she is as blatant as she has always been. And in some cases, she is more insidious than ever before, hiding behind an exterior that would suggest she wants nothing more than to raise women up.

Real-life stories of the Queen Bee sound like this:

  • When asking for a promotion that has been earned (and was (much) later granted), she says, “The best workers often don’t make the best managers. Maybe some other time.”
  • After a year of accomplishing major goals, saving the company significant money, and obtaining several industry educational designations, she also promotes a man who has done none of these things, saying “I think he will do a great job going forward.”
  • In a meeting with high-level officers of the company, she tells her female manager that her data is incorrect, and when the manager attempts to explain, she loudly tells her to “Shut Up!”
  • She belongs to several women’s groups, invites young women along, but then promotes men into the important roles in the company.
  • She coaches women to exacting standards on non-essential skills while coaching men on standards that matter to the business.
  • She picks one or two women to support and does so in a very public way, and treats other women with incivility, often out of the public view.

What do we women do when we encounter a Queen Bee? Here are some thoughts:

  • If the Queen Bee is your direct manager, the best advice is to find a new boss. She is not likely to change or to find more confidence. Save yourself a significant amount of effort and time, and find a boss who will support you.
  • When this is not possible, find ways to support her without threatening her status. This is part of the technique called “managing up.” For example, before presenting something to a larger group, be sure to first run it by her and then to give her some of the credit when presenting it (one assumes she will have added a contribution when you run it by her).
  • When the Queen Bee is not your direct manager, but you need to interact with her, always be professional and do your best to develop a relationship with her. Where there is trust, she will not, most of the time, undermine you.

Women will only get to the top levels of our organizations in large numbers when we are able to recognize that when we support each other in the workplace, we all win.

As a reminder, Queen Bees are not the norm. There are fewer and fewer of them in the workplace, to the point that there are studies showing that their number is quantifiably insignificant. Until they are all gone, however, we need to continue to educate ourselves on this.

Have you experienced a Queen Bee? What techniques did you use to help navigate this situation? Please be sure to share.

As always, stay positive, and have a great day!

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