Are Women Queen Bees?

Queen Bees exist but they are far less common than we think.

Posted Oct 01, 2016

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There are many popular myths and stereotypes about women and men. For example, you have heard people say women talk more than men. You know, “chatty Kathy.” When in fact, the study of turn taking in groups, demonstrates that men get the floor more often than women, women are the recipients of more interruptions by both men and other women and when men get the floor, they keep it longer. It is always a good idea to take an occasional hard look at some of these myths.

Here is another one: Women are the queen of gossip and they tend to be more catty than men which produce Queen Bees. What is a Queen Bee? The Queen Bee syndrome was first defined by G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayaratne, and C. Tavris in 1973. It describes a woman in a position of authority who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female. This phenomenon has been documented by several studies. In another study, scientists from the University of Toronto claimed Toronto that the queen bee syndrome may be the reason that women find it more stressful to work for women managers; no difference was found in stress levels for male workers.  An alternate, though closely related, definition describes a queen bee as one who has succeeded in her career, but refuses to help other women do the same. Some researchers speculate that women may feel they had to claw their way to the top through many years of hard work and stress and expect other women to experience the same rigor; simply, they suffered, so should other women.

In a New York Times article, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant addressed the complexity of this interpersonal and widespread held belief. Adding insult to injury, many people believe that the biggest enemy of women is a powerful woman. In my own research on the Queen Bee syndrome I found that some powerful women who make their way to the top are not always interested in helping other women climb the ladder. According to Queen Bee theory, a female senior manager should have a more negative impact on other professional women. When strategy professors studied the top management of the Standard & Poor’s 1,500 companies over 20 years, they found what they thought support this notion- when one woman reached senior management, it was 51% less likely a second woman would make it. On closer examination, the person blocking the second woman’s advancement wasn’t a Queen Bee; it was a male executive. When a woman was made chief executive, the opposite was true and woman had a better chance of joining senior management than when the chief executive was a man.

The popular idea is women are not supportive of other women who are attempting to move up the professional ranks. Sandberg and Grant claim otherwise and, of course, Sandberg herself is one of the most powerful women in corporate America as COO of Facebook and can speak from personal experience.

Queen Bees exist but they are far less common than we think. According to Sandberg and Grant, “women aren’t any meaner to women than men are to one another.” Stereotypes of men as aggressive and women as kind come into play. When a woman violates this stereotype, we judge them more harshly. As Marlo Thomas said, “A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold.” It is the double standard again played out in another context.