Do Sexist Organizational Cultures Create the Queen Bee?

This article presents the findings of a study conducted by Belle Derks, Naomi Ellemers, Colette van Laar, and Kim de Groot at Leiden Univeristy, which was published in the British Journal of Social Psychology in 2011.

Queen Bees are defined by this study as senior women in masculine organizational cultures, who dissociate themselves from their gender and contribute to gender stereotyping of other women in order to fulfill their own career aspirations. 94 women in senior positions in the Netherlands participated in the study. The findings led to different interpretation of the ‘Queen Bee’ phenomenon, understanding it as the response of low gender identified women to the gender discrimination they encounter in work.

Most popular media summaries of the Queen Bee phenomenon report that female rivalry in the workplace is sometimes as important as sexism in holding back women’s careers. This study is the first to suggest that the Queen Bee phenomenon is an outcome of gender discrimination experienced by women rather than a female characteristic in itself. The women with the most signs of the Queen Bee phenomenon (masculine self-description, gender stereotyping, distancing from other women) were women who reported being low gender identified on entering the workforce and experienced a high degree of gender discrimination on the way up. This offers a more nuanced view of the popular idea that women are more inclined than men to compete against eachother. Women who show evidence of Queen bee phenomenon do not do so because of their inherent predisposition to compete with other women, but because they see this as a way to pursue their ambitions in sexist organizational cultures.

Women still receive lower payments than their male counterparts (currently the pay gap between men and women working in law stands at 42%, 46 years after the Equal Pay Act of 1970) and are less likely to reach higher management positions in organisations. Women contend with negative stereotypes that suggest that women have lower leadership ability, career commitment, and emotional stability. Furthermore, male-dominated organisations create a preference for masculine work styles and lead to a lack of female role models. Queen Bees are said to derogate other women while emphasising their own masculine qualities and career commitment to advance their career.

This study shows that the Queen Bee phenomenon is not a separate force obstructing women, but in fact a consequence of gender discrimination in the workplace, which motivates some women to enhance their own success at the expense of others’.

The conclusion that women are their own worst enemies unfairly blames women rather than the context of gender discrimination that they operate in. Women are expected to help and promote eachother, while men are expected to compete against each other. Secondly, women who do not help other women and compete for higher career outcomes were seen as particularly hostile.

The Queen Bee phenomenon is one consequence of addressing individual workers in terms of their gender. The Queen Bee phenomenon is one response to what the case writers call ‘social identity threat’. Social identity relates to how peoples self-image is derived from the groups they belong to.  When women work in places where their gender is devalued, they feel this is a threat to their social identity.

Social identity threat can be reduced by two means. One way is through collective mobility e.g. women combating negative stereotypes; another way is by psychological dissociation from the group that negatively affects the identity e.g. women stressing differences between themselves and other women. This second way of coping with social identity threat through psychological dissociation is one cause of Queen Bee phenomenon.

The results can be interpreted as showing the adaptability of women in that they can fulfill their career aspirations even when organisations hold negative stereotypes of their gender. The results also question the common notion that women should take care of each other in the workplace, while men are free to compete unrestrained with other men. Queen Bee behaviour is shown to be beneficial for the career success of some women, but can be detrimental for women at an earlier career stage. The negative gender stereotypes perpetrated by the Queen Bee affect the career opportunities of other women. Female employees tend to look to female superiors for inspiration, and for this to work female managers need to be role models for female subordinates to identify with, rather than distance themselves from.

The study recommends that businesses should not focus on simple measures alone to increase the number of women at top positions e.g. affirmative action programmes and strict quotas. As well as this they should also change the culture of the organisation. Putting isolated token individuals in positions of power doesn’t necessarily improve opportunities for other members of the same social group and fails to create long-term real change. Companies need to improve the respect communicated to female employees and ensure that women can achieve career success without foregoing their gender identification.