The Queen Bee Syndrome

A few posts ago I provided some links to articles that profess that we ‘prefer’ to work for me – that women tend to be more difficult as bosses (already I’m not in total agreement an naturally want to stir up a fight, but lets go with it). So I’ve been doing some research as to why that might be the case.  One theory I’ve come across is the “Queen Bee Syndrome”.

I believe the term “Queen Bee Syndrome” goes back a while – it seems to pop up in the 1970s with research with respect to the women’s movement.  However I’ve been taking a look at the more recent stuff out there on the phenomenon. Most recently, a study published by the British Journal of Psychology  – from the work of Dr Naomi Ellemers (and her colleagues).

What is it?

In simplistic terms, the theory states that  some very successful women in senior positions may be particularly biased and unsupportive toward other women.  These individually successful women in male-dominated environments are actually more likely to endorse gender stereotypes.  It seems to go against our (well at least my) intuitive logic. If there are very few women in senior management roles, for the most part, wouldn’t they want to help other women get to that position too?  To equal it out a bit?   Nope.  Not according to these findings.

What did the study discover?

Ellemers and her colleagues conducted a study to find out some of the reasons why there aren’t more women in scientific (university faculty, in particular) careers.  Although they found that some of the reasons revolve around the traditional tensions that women face in balancing work and family, there was another surprising outcome.  While the women employees in the organization may be just as, if not more,  committed as the men, the female senior leaders were biased against young females, viewing them as being less committed.  This bias against younger females was primarily observed in older women – above the age of 47.

“While there is a perceived gender difference in career-oriented commitment in the eyes of the female faculty (leaders), the male faculty (leaders) perceives male and female students as equally committed to their careers. A similar pattern emerges with respect to the perceived commitment of male and female doctoral students (employees) to the university (organization), suggesting that only female faculty assumes that female doctoral students are less committed to their work than their male counterparts”.

The literature also showed that successful women were less likely to support policy measures that would be beneficial for women as a group, to the extent that they hold a competitive attitude towards other women.


The Theory

Ellemers grounds the reasoning for this in Social Identity Theory. Without trying to explain this theory in any detail (I intend to sleep tonight), I’ll brush over  why they think this happens.

Essentially these ‘older’ women leaders  forged a career when it was still exceptional for women to do so. They became successful in this environment – why change what works – why support other women when they didn’t get that support?   Making a successful career under these circumstances meant being the ‘non-prototypical’ woman – setting oneself far apart from the ‘stereotypical’ ‘other’ women  (basically, to see themselves as more masculine, like their male colleagues).  Seeing themselves as more similar to the male counterparts than the female, meant that  other women were contrasted with this self-view, and as a result were perceived in more gender stereotypical terms.

So there we go.  It’s scary and somewhat sad research, but interesting.   Although the 2 female bosses I’ve had (only 2) dont fall under that category,  I can think of some clear examples of very successful senior women that I felt were exceptionally unsupportive of young women. That “I made it here by sacrifice, and so will you” type of leader.

I definitely don’t think that women should be biased toward other women and against men.  I do think, however, that  young woman trying to forge a career could use some supportive role models out there!


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4 Responses to The Queen Bee Syndrome

  1. James says:

    Girls being competitive towards other women or other “outgroups” of women? I can’t imagine it.

  2. Anne Lamps says:

    Since women do typically have to balance career and family care eventually, it’d be nice if they could get a little extra nurturing in their careers to help out!

    I’ve seen the same effect in a woman I know who’s my mother’s age. She grew up in a less than priviledged community, the daughter of immigrants. They worked hard to better themselves, educate themselves. This woman appears to have no compassion for the under-priviledged in our society and displayed a critical attitude towards my doing volunteer work that gave people basic skills such as reading. She saw herself as better than them, and set apart from them, rather than similar to them, because she had bettered herself compared to the previous generation of her family.

  3. Wendy says:

    You know…as sad as this is, I’ve seen it and more.

    Sometimes the behaviour of women towards other women in the workplace is just cringe-worthy. (Not saying that some male behaviours are not cringe-worthy either…but that’s a whole other post). I’ve witnessed cat fights in hallways, and overheard some women reduced to dust by means of verbal atttack by another women. We do make it hard on ourselves, and by doing so, open up this whole concept and more…

  4. Vicki says:

    This reminds me when I was a floor manager at Lululemon for a short time. While I wasn’t incharge of the whole store, I had some supervising duties.
    There were 22 women, and one man at work there. Despite the yogic script written on the ouside of the bags with soothing thoughts and quotes – the place was cut throat. With the social interactions, the women were very sensitive to competition and criticism – sensitivity to these two factors enhanced their own sense of compeition and criticism towards others. Soon enough, it turned to personal insults.
    This created an increasing cycle of agression and sensitivity. When people were permoted or given rewards, there was always outspoken or obvious resentment. While I’m sure there are many complex reasons behind this – I agree that a strong role model was needed to guide this flexible ship, and came away with new experience in how womens social interaction can be very complex.
    Are women more sensitive? Do they hold their grudges longer? Or are we just unable to hide it? How do you even quantify it?
    In this case, the organization (for a time) imploded on itself and was no longer functioning well. Profit was lost. Individuals were hired and fired and then it began again – this time, with a new store manager.

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