Queen Bee & Equity

Queen Bee

Women for Women?

For years, the discussion around women’s rights has been centered on driving as many women into the workforce and leadership as possible. The thinking was that with more women in power, we would see more women in a better place to succeed in the workplace. Seems logical, doesn’t it?

Except that apparently it’s not.

Recent research shows that women in power may not only be continuing in the vein of male-dominated work policies, but actually encouraging anti-female agendas.Wait, what?

Haven’t we all been working towards a more inclusive environment since… say…. always? Well, yes, we certainly have, but it’s way more complex than we originally thought.

First of all, let’s review this staggering statistic:

As of 2016, fewer than 5% of C-suite positions in the top 500 U.S. companies are held by women.

Women in S&P 500 Companies

Gender equity accomplished yet? Not quite. Okay, let’s continue.

Introducing … The Queen Bee!

Def.: A Queen Bee is a woman in senior-level executive position working in a male-dominated workplace. 

Published in The Leadership Quarterly, 2016,  The queen bee phenomenon: Why women leaders distance themselves from junior women, authors and researchers Belle Derks, Colette Van Laar, Naomi Ellemers, explore the current status of women leaders in the West. They arrive at some disturbing conclusions.

Their research shows women feel pressure to assimilate into a male-dominated workforce by distancing themselves from traits considered distinctly female as well as their junior female coworkers.employee-1118183_960_720

“Rather than ‘rocking the boat,’ and incurring personal costs by challenging male hegemony…some women will respond … by distancing themselves from the unfavorable image of women’s career potential and pursuing individual mobility by assimilating into the masculine organizational culture” (Derks, et al., 2015).

This Queen Bee phenomenon has been widely researched. It appears that frequently (although not always), when women are leading in male-dominated workforce leadership positions, they may feel forced to adapt in one, a few, or all three of the following ways:

  1. She may take on what are perceived as more masculine-like qualities, or
  2. The leader may highlight differences between and distance herself from other less-successful, junior women, and/or
  3. She may lend legitimacy to the gender hierarchy. This last one is perhaps the most dangerous.

What is This All About?

This article argues that women, while in leadership positions, are not acting the way we thought we would. In fact, women tend to assimilate with the male-dominated workforce, even changing leadership styles, to fit the current mold. Therefore, organizations with Queen Bees may indeed offer less opportunities for women looking to climb the organizational ladder.

Let’s get one thing straight. This research does not blame the victim. The so-called Queen Bee, is reacting to existing gender biases and molding herself for survival. The female leader is simply reacting to her already-established parameters in order to be successful in her role.

As Derks et al. (2015) explains, it’s very possible that a woman in power can be more harmful to gender equality measures than men. It was previously believed that just a few women in power would help out her fellow women, provide a feminine perspective in leadership, and eventually help work towards gender establishing gender equioffice-620817_960_720ty. However, it appears this is likely not the case. And also, let’s be honest, also a form of gender bias. Generally, men are not told to make buddies of their counterparts and help them promote, as women so often are coached to do.

“It has been found that women who achieved personal success in male-dominated organizations perceived selection procedures as legitimate, even when there were clear signs of gender bias”  (Derks, et al., 2015).

AKA: In some organizational cultures, women see their gender as a liability. They push other women away and support divisive policies to survive. That sucks.

Additionally, this research proves that the Queen Bee phenomenon isn’t some sort of inherent female reaction to power. Rather, this response in in direct reaction to an unbalanced work environment. More specifically, a work environment in which women and men are not equal.

Women Pitted Against One Another takes us All Down

Queen Bee behavior is found not just among women but of other negatively stereotyped social groups. It has similar behavioral impacts on different social groups as well.

This phenomenon decreases upward mobility for women in organizations. It has the secondary effect of harming organizations looking for diversity among leadership.

This divisive behavior indicates to other women that in order to succeed in a company, it is necessary to replicate the female leaders’ behavior, which leads to higher turnover in companies with queen bee leaders than without any female leadership at all.

Press Beyond the Boundaries

Knowing this now, what can we do?

  1. Reduce social identity threat. Increase group-perception as a whole. Social identity theory dictates that when a person moves from one’s status in a group to another, she is more prone to distance herself from the group. Generally, if the elevation is only a promotion, not a class change, then it stands to reason that the need to explain and create distance will decrease as she’s no longer leaving something she thinks people see as a “lower class.”
  2. Reduce belief in system legitimacy.
  3. Increase mobility. Often women feel the need to save themselves as opposed to saving the whole.
  4. Determine whether or not gender diversity programs are right for your company. Not all organizations benefit from the promotion of one or two “token” women. Determine the best fit for leadership and encourage inclusion of all gender identities.

Lend Your Voice

What’s your experience? As a woman previously employed in leadership positions, this research hits deep. I have absolutely been this woman. Another thought to consider: I wrote this article after reading a much longer, much more in-depth publication on the topic. We need much more discussion around this phenomenon. If you’d like to read more, please click on the article’s link above. What can we do personally to challenge ourselves daily? Inclusivity is the key.

A Little Aside …

I’m currently reading Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg’s critics deliver quite a bit of criticism for writing the book specifically from a privileged perspective. However, fascinatingly, she’s also receives plenty of praise from top publications for being right on the money. So you know, I can’t put it down. It’s captivating to compare even her introduction to this Queen Bee leadership research. Scholars vs. businesswoman. Perspectives and backgrounds assuredly being different. Sandberg says: “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”


Source: The queen bee phenomenon: Why women leaders distance themselves from junior women

Derks, B.; Van Laar, C.; Ellemers, Naomi
(2016) Leadership quarterly, volume 27, issue 3, pp. 456 – 469


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