The former US Secretary of state, Madeleine Allbright famously said, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. What did she mean? Well, in a nutshell, women should be working towards helping and supporting each other rather than tearing each other down. This seems quite straightforward and simple, and yet, putting theory into practice in a patriarchal society becomes much more complex. Ever heard of the queen bee syndrome? (No, not Serena van der Woodsen as the pack leader, the actual one).
Let’s take a closer look and deconstruct this phenomenon together. To begin with, the ‘queen bee’ label is problematic. ‘Queen bee’ is a derogatory term deployed in business to refer to women leaders who succeed in work environments dominated by men and begin to prevent other women from moving up the ladder. Despite studies showing that men engage in indirect aggression such as gossipping or social exclusion at similar (or even higher) rates than women, it is still widely believed that women are meaner to one another. Even the term ‘queen bee’ is gendered: of course men can be obnoxious and problematic, but there is no equivalent term for the specific action of plotting against their men colleagues.
Let’s unpack this further. Because there is a (masculine) archetype about the characteristics necessary of successful leaders, women are often at a disadvantage to achieve leadership positions. In order to be taken seriously, queen bees assimilate to stereotypically ‘masculine’ definitions of leadership. The principle of “one seat at the table” leads many to actively distance themselves from the stereotype of women as ‘weak, emotional, not tough enough,’ in the hopes of a promotion. When adopting this scarcity mindset, women are pitted against one another. Research from the Workplace Bullying Institute asserts this claim, reporting that women bullies directed their hostilities towards other women around 80% of the time.
The assumption that women are naturally in competition with one another, is one as old as time. Women’s rivalry is a common theme in the portrayal of women in history, literature, film, and sports. However, labelling a woman ‘queen bee’ places the blame solely on women (and their “natural” competitiveness). In doing so, it makes sweeping generalisations about the way all women behave. Another assumption made by this ‘queen bee’ label is that women should be nice to one another. We often teach young girls to be nice (especially to men), smile politely, not make waves, and not take up too much space. When women do not play into these stereotypical assumptions, they are ascribed this ‘queen bee’ label or other derogatory ones.
Most importantly, it is now confirmed that the ‘queen bee phenomenon’ is not so much a source of gender bias as it is a response to gender discrimination in workplace settings. Because of the negative stereotypes that women encounter in men-dominated work settings, their self-preservation instinct kicks in, often in the form of queen bee behaviour. It really is a lose-lose situation. Women seeking to advance their careers find themselves in a double bind: if they do not promote other women, they are considered a queen bee, but if they do, they are criticised for favouring women.
Interestingly enough, queen bee behaviour is not a typically feminine response but part of a general response found in other marginalised groups as well. Work among queer men has also found that they distance themselves from the stereotype of gays as effeminate, by emphasising hyper masculinity and expressing negative views about more “femme” men. Similarly, in a 2008 study, academically successful African American children would be accused by members of their group of ‘acting white’ (avoiding what was perceived as more stereotypical African American speech) when engaging in self-group distancing. Research on identity and ageing has also found that under threat of age stereotypes, older adults distance themselves from their age group.
The issue here seems clear: it is not the women, or marginalised individuals, that are responsible for the emergence of queen bee behaviour in a workplace, but more the conditions and structures of the workplace that produce this phenomenon. The term itself is gendered, and relies on an antiquated distinction between “masculine” characteristics necessary for professional success, and the less favourable “feminine” characteristics that are perceived as undesirable in the workplace, especially in senior management positions. Women in the workplace need more support than they currently receive: they merit such support because the organisational demands are greater, not because they are not committed enough.