I had recently heard about the “Queen Bee Phenomenon” which has been said to be a common occurrence within male-dominated organizations and, having recognized the description of these behaviours through some of my own previous encounters, I thought it would be a good topic to explore and share.
The “Queen Bee Phenomenon” tends to be seen amongst women who pursue individual success, within a male-dominated environment, while adjusting themselves to fit within the male-dominated culture and distancing themselves from other women. To further the description, women who act as “Queen Bees” display three main behaviours to achieve one main goal. They: 1) present themselves as more masculine, emphasizing male stereotypical characteristics and downplaying female stereotypical characteristics; 2) they distance themselves (psychologically & physically) from other women- mainly from the more junior/lower-level women; and 3) they legitimize the current gender hierarchy, all in order to achieve individual success and often at the expense of other women.
It would be too easy to attribute these behaviours merely to the flawed female character. The true reasons for this phenomenon, of course, are much more complex. According to a review of research by Derks, Van Laar, & Ellemers (2016), the Queen Bee Phenomenon is not the main cause of gender equality, rather, the associated behaviours are a consequence of gender discrimination that are triggered by the devaluing of women and the negative stereotypes that women are continually encountering within a workplace dominated by men. This reaction is related to social identity theory, where individuals tend to base their identity partially on their gender. When women are in the minority within the higher ranks/positions of an organization, and when stereotypes see their gender as less able or suited to those roles, women often feel a social identity threat. This threat can lead to individual coping mechanisms which aim to improve upon their work opportunities in a male-dominated organization where career options & advancements for women are limited. These coping mechanisms can include such things as distancing themselves from others in the minority group i.e. other women, and working to assimilate themselves into the higher status group i.e. with men. Queen Bees will often disassociate from junior women, criticizing them, find them less career-focused, committed, or willing to sacrifice for their careers as they may have (e.g., not marrying or having children). These Queen Bees will work to build stereotypical characteristics more in line with male leaders.
I have briefly discussed the first two behaviors of a typical Queen Bee, that is, presenting as more masculine and distancing from other women. What about the third behaviour, then, of legitimizing the current gender hierarchy? Often Queen Bees can legitimize the status quo male-dominated companies/organizations by filling the “token” women seats at the senior level. This allows the organization to state that they have no issue with gender integration or equality and then continue on without any efforts to improve on this front. Since Queen Bees have been successful in their careers, using their often-negative coping mechanisms, they may not perceive the lack of fairness for other women in terms of promotion, available flex-time required for family responsibilities, etc. Research has shown that they are more likely then men to reject things like quota policies to benefit junior women (Rindfleish & Sheridan, 2003).
It must be stated that not all successful women will become Queen Bees or exhibit these characteristics. These responses are mainly triggered within male-dominated organizations where women experience social identity threats due to negative stereotypes and gender discrimination. Some women, on the other hand, in the same workplace situation will be motivated to work harder to support women’s programs and be a mentor/support to junior women. These women are more apt to be those who tend to identify more strongly with their gender at work. It is also important to note that the Queen Bee Phenomenon can also be see within other minority groups which are negatively stereotyped in the workplace. “Self-group distancing” is a term used for this.
Queen Bee behaviours can have a negative effect on women senior leaders, junior women, and on the organization overall. Amongst other effects, women leaders who have distanced themselves from other women in the workplace may miss out on the psychological benefits of identifying with other women who can provide support in relation to gender discrimination. Junior women are negatively effected by missing our on having senior women leaders as mentors, roles models, and as support as they climb the organizational ladder. Junior women may feel disheartened by the inability to relate to and receive support from the Queen Bee leader. Organizations can also be negatively affected by the Queen Bee phenomenon as it may limit their growth in diversity within the highest levels. As Queen Bees show more stereotypical masculine leadership styles, due to trying to assimilate themselves in the male-dominated workplace, and since this phenomenon can often stifle the career of junior women, the organization misses out on the diversity of perspective in leadership roles, which would surely benefit organizational outcomes. This also illustrates how having just several “token” women leaders, who are Queen Bees, can actually be detrimental.
This has been a short overview of the Queen Bee Phenomenon, as I have understood it from reading research on the topic. There is plenty more depth and research to dig into if it interests you, starting perhaps with the references below.
Have you seen these behaviours exhibited around you within a male-dominated workplace? Can you identify them within yourself? Better understanding our own behaviours and what factors can contribute to them is a good step towards change. The Queen Bee Phenomenon, of course, is not just a women’s issue. As this phenomenon is a consequence of gender discrimination and negative stereotypes against women, especially within a male-dominated work environment, and as it can have personal and organizational impacts, it is a workplace concern for us all.
Derks, B., Van Laar, C., & Ellemers, N. (2016). The queen bee phenomenon: Why women leaders distance themselves from junior women. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(3), 456-469.
Queen bees: Do women hinder the progress of other women? (4 Jan, 2018). BBC News.
Rindfleish, J., & Sheridan, A. (2003). No change from within: senior women managers’ response to gendered organizational structures. Women in Management Review.