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‘Queen Bees’ in the Workplace: What is the Role of Successful Women?

"Queen Bee Syndrome" Stifles Growth of Women in the Workplace

Last Friday I read an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee.” It raised some interesting points about the role and responsibilities of women who make it big in corporate America with respect to serving as role models and mentors to younger woman at the entry level. The story did not paint a very flattering picture of how successful women, or “Queen Bees,” were treating their hives of followers who hope to benefit from the experiences and wisdom gained by women in top leadership positions.

Peggy Drexler points out in the article that the term "queen bee syndrome" was coined in the 1970s, following a study led by researchers at the University of Michigan who examined promotion rates and the impact of the women's movement on the workplace. In a 1974 article they presented their findings, based on more than 20,000 responses to reader surveys. They found that women who achieved success in male-dominated environments were at times likely to oppose the rise of other women. This occurred, they argued, largely because the patriarchal culture of work encouraged the few women who rose to the top to become obsessed with maintaining their authority.

Fast forward to more current times and we find a 2007 survey of 1,000 American workers released by the San Francisco-based Employment Law Alliance. It found that 45% of respondents had been bullied at the office—verbal abuse, job sabotage, misuse of authority, deliberate destruction of relationships—and that 40% of the reported bullies were women. In 2010, the Workplace Bullying Institute, a national education and advocacy group, reported that female bullies directed their hostilities toward other women 80% of the time—up 9% since 2007. Male bullies, by contrast, were generally equal-opportunity tormentors.

A 2011 survey of 1,000 working women by the American Management Association found that 95% of them believed they were undermined by another woman at some point in their careers. According to a 2008 University of Toronto study of nearly 1,800 U.S. employees, women working under female supervisors reported more symptoms of physical and psychological stress than did those working under male supervisors.

Drexler points out the dilemma for women today. As the old male-dominated workplace has been transformed, many have hoped that the rise of female leaders would create a softer, gentler kind of office, based on communication, team building and personal development. But instead, some women are finding their professional lives dominated by high school "mean girls" all grown up: women with something to prove and a precarious sense of security.

What makes these queen bees so effective and aggravating is that they are able to exploit female vulnerabilities that men may not see, using tactics that their male counterparts might never even notice. Some examples where expectations were not met include: a new employee assumes her female boss might want to help foster her growth out of some sense of female solidarity; another seeks out work at a magazine specifically because she admires the editor’s writings and thinks her career will benefit; and then there is the rising star who is waylaid by purposefully poor performance evaluations.

In a world where there are still relatively few women in positions of power -- just 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 16% of boards of directors -- it is an understandable assumption that the rise of one would mean the ouster of another. ‘One plus one equals one.’

Women executives tell me that though it is getting easier to be a professional woman, it is by no means easy. Some women—especially in industries that remain male-dominated—assume that their position and status may be pulled from beneath them at any given moment (and many times, they are indeed encouraged to feel this way). Made to second-guess themselves, they try to ensure their own dominance by keeping others, especially women, down.

The result is a distinctive strain of negative leadership traits—less overtly confrontational than their domineering male counterparts but bullying just the same. Comments on appearance or dress are part of their repertoire—something that would be seen more obviously as harassment when coming from a man—as are higher, sometimes even unreasonable, expectations for performance. Women who have risen in male-dominated fields may want to tell themselves that their struggle and success were unique. As a result they sometimes treat the performance of females who follow as never quite good enough.

Drexler also notes that it cuts both ways, though: Women aren't always the best employees to other women either. Female subordinates can show less respect and deference to female bosses than to their male bosses.

Studies have shown that women are critical of female bosses who are not empathetic. They also tend to resent female bosses who adopt a brusque and assertive management style, even as they find it perfectly acceptable for male bosses. And so they question and push back, answering authority with attitude.

The bottom line is women have to work twice as hard as men to achieve the same position. They always have faced challenges from men who seem stuck in the 1950s and 60s, before things grudgingly started to change. And now we find out their mentors feel threatened and may do whatever it takes to hold onto to what they have accomplished. That is unfortunate because one sign of a social responsibility and civic duty is to pave the path for those who come after you so that they can achieve more than you ever dreamed possible. Isn’t that what a good parent does for his or her child? Why should there be different standards in corporate America?

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 6, 2013