Queen bees are women in positions of authority who are more critical of female subordinates. Sixteen years ago a classic study found that female university professors succumbed to queen bee syndrome in their evaluations of female graduate students. New research indicates that queen bees are still going strong, but the researchers suggest that we shouldn’t be trying to fix the women. Instead, it’s our organizations that need help.
In a 2004 study of the queen bee phenomenon, university faculty members were asked to rate the commitment of doctoral students in their department. Although the male faculty members thought male and female doctoral students were equally committed to their careers, female faculty members thought the female graduate students were less committed than their male counterparts. (The male and female students self-reported the same level of commitment to their careers).
As more women entered the workforce and academia over the last decade and a half, the researchers hoped that this phenomenon would disappear. Sadly, it hasn’t. New research just out in the British Journal of Social Psychology replicated the 2004 results indicating senior-level female professors still believe their female graduate students are less committed than their male counterparts.
Why would senior women judge up-and-coming women more harshly? Evidence indicates that they are not just being catty or mean. Instead it’s a way the women cope with the gender discrimination they’ve faced in their own career. Women who experienced bias may begin to emphasize how different they are from other women, and may also begin to apply gender stereotypes they themselves have encountered. To demonstrate the link between the experience of gender bias and the queen bee phenomenon, researchers have been able to eliminate queen bee behavior simply by asking women to think about a time when they were judged based on merit and not based on their gender.
Naomi Ellemers is one of the current study’s coauthors and a social psychology professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Based on her own research along with others’ in this area, she believes that in evaluations of subordinates the women take into account their own experiences, "including the realization that they had to overcome gender bias, did not receive much support from the organization and had to make many personal sacrifices to be successful.”
Therefore, she says, “These women know they had to show exceptional commitment to be successful, and this makes them less certain that other women should be willing and able to do the same.” In other words, she says that the more senior women realize that the younger women need to be “super committed” in order to have a chance at success.
Another way senior-level women distance themselves from other women is by behaving in a more masculine manner. In the present study, senior-level female faculty members describe themselves as extremely masculine (matching the masculinity ratings of their male counterparts). By contrast, women earlier in their careers describe themselves as less masculine. The women apparently learned over time that at the top ranks, masculinity and career success are synonymous. Likely, it seems to them that only the more masculine women are promoted to top levels, and the only path to success is to present oneself as masculine.
The researchers make it clear, “the queen bee phenomenon is not a cause, but rather a consequence of gender discrimination that continues to prevail in academia.” In fact, they think “queen bee” may not even be the correct term to describe a woman who is doing her best to adapt and survive in male-dominated environments. Carol Tavris, who was a coauthor on the original 1974 study which coined the term told The Atlantic she regretted giving such “a catchy name” to such a complex pattern of behavior. She explained that the term, queen bee is often misinterpreted and may have a negative impact on initiatives to help women at work. The current researchers agree, suggesting a new term, “self-group distancing” be adopted instead of “queen bee.”
Ellemers sums up that solving the queen bee problem, can’t be “achieved by fixing the women, but requires that we fix the organizations.” In other words, eliminating gender bias in our organizations is really the only way to eliminate this phenomenon. Until that time, she says, “we hope our study will help people realize that young women in academia need more support than they currently receive. They merit such support because the organization places greater demands on them, not because they are insufficiently committed.”