The existence of the Queen Bee — the ultra-competitive, hypercritical female boss who has zero interest in fostering the careers of fellow women, possibly even actively seeking to keep them down — has been much discussed. Is she real — a real, live enemy to female career advancement? Or is she any woman who reaches a position of power and, it’s assumed, must have stepped on more than a few toes along the way? In other words, is the Queen Bee yet another way to slap the “bitch” label on women who succeed?
The term Queen Bee emerged in the 1970s by researchers looking at the prevalence of the women’s movement within the then-patriarchal workplace. I’ve written about it frequently as it relates to the modern day workplace, which, of course, remains quite patriarchal, despite considerable advances. These days, fast-rising females can be seen as a threat to the still-relatively few female power positions. Is it any surprise, then, that the relatively few women who rise to the top may become obsessed with maintaining authority?
While there’s no definitive study that tells us how prevalent Queen Bees are in the workplace, the anecdotal is evidence is very strong. So many women have stories, and I’ve heard from many of these women. In the weeks after I first wrote about the topic, I received hundreds of emails from women seeking to share their own experiences working for a Queen Bee. And of course, not everyone wrote in to corroborate:
Everybody has worked for a tough boss. Sometimes that boss is beloved because he or she pushes us to do things we thought we couldn’t do. Sometimes that boss is feared or even hated because he or she is unreasonable. Sometimes both. But is being a “tough boss” different for a woman than a man? Anecdotal, and scientific, research indicates yes. Men are “tough” bosses; women are “mean” ones, a fact that is a mix of perception and reality.
Studies point to the existence of the Queen Bee. In a recent Gallup poll, employees said they’d prefer to work for a man than a woman. A 2010 report by the Workplace Bullying Institute, a national education and advocacy group, reported that female bullies directed their hostilities toward other women 80 percent of the time — up 9 percent since 2007. (Male bullies tended to push around without regard to gender.) A 2011 survey of 1,000 working women by the American Management Association found that 95 percent of them believed they were undermined by another woman at some point in their careers.
Here’s where it gets complicated: Women-led businesses may perform better. There are studies that point to companies with high percentages of female leaders having superior returns, including a report by HR consulting firm DDI, which found that the top 20 percent of financially successful companies have 27 percent female leaders, while the bottom 20 percent have 19 percent female leaders.
Of course, that doesn’t mean people are happy. But do they need to be? After all, as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball” and opinion is united that the same holds true in the workplace. This is where the Catch-22 of female leadership must also be acknowledged. Although nurturing female bosses can be seen as “soft” — especially by men — the explosion over Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is an indication how far we are from coming to terms with female leadership. Just look at how Sandberg was described by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times: “She has a grandiose plan to become the PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots …”
I can’t help but wonder, after all, in all that’s been written about male titans of industry, how many times people have mentioned their choice of shoes.
By Dr. Peggy Drexler