Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal published an article essay titled “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee” that claimed the “Queen Bee” syndrome, coined in the 1970s to explain women who reached leadership positions and then failed to mentor women lower in the ranks, is still alive and well today.
The Queen Bee Syndrome was first explained by psychology researchers at the University of Michigan and refers to a female boss “who not only has zero interest in fostering the careers of women who aim to follow in her footsteps, but who might even actively attempt to cut them off at the pass.” The study showed that women who worked their way up the corporate ladder in male-dominated fields and organizations often did not facilitate the rise of other women who followed them. Instead, they seemed to become obsessed with maintaining their own authority and position. This Queen Bee behavior occurred, according to the researchers, “largely because the patriarchal culture of work” made women feel insecure in their newfound positions and the “scarcity” of such high-level positions meant women needed to compete against one another to keep their rank.
It’s easy to condemn this sort of behavior, point fingers and lay blame. We all know a Queen Bee that we love to hate! But, for just a moment, let’s consider the possibility that the Queen Bee is misunderstood… (cue the emails, texts and Facebook posts of women in my network who will slap my hand!)
IT’S LONELY AT THE TOP
In our book Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership we dedicate a chapter to women who successfully lead change in their organizations – we call them “Evolutionary Women”. One of the most courageous qualities that Evolutionary women possess is that they are willing to be first. Most of these women are pioneers in workplace domains long dominated by men – political office, corporate executive suites, boards of directors, medicine, technology, consulting, law and more. In my work I have had the chance to interview many of these successful women, and I have learned a lot about them. One similarity that they all shared was a sense of “loneliness.” The saying “It’s lonely at the top” is never more true than when you are the only woman (or one of the very few) there. These brave women are ready to cope with the loneliness they will feel as they spend most of their time with groups of men, and find that the occasional women they do come across also view them as “set apart” because of the unconventional career and lifestyle choices that many of these ambitious women tend to make.
The Queen Bee Syndrome may still be alive today, as the Wall Street Journal article argues, but I believe the motive for not assisting the next generation of women is more complicated than the simple “scarcity” explanation posed by the researchers conducting the study. First, let’s assume the researchers were correct about the “patriarchal culture of work” in male-dominated fields creating only a few “openings” available for women to move into leadership roles in the environment. It may make perfect sense then that the few women admitted into these rare positions do not seem to assist women lower in the ranks to also move up – perhaps there really is nowhere to move to! Rather than operating from a motive that is purely competitive and selfish, many women in these positions actually feel they cannot make promises they have no power in the culture of the organization to deliver on.
THE JOURNEY TO THE TOP DEMANDED SACRIFICE
Some of the women I have interviewed referred to themselves as classic “Queen Bees” (while they did not see themselves that way, they believed that is how others in the organization viewed them). But rather than operating from a place of malice or power-mongering, they simply felt they did not have the “obligation to pave the way for the next generation of women.” They wished them no harm, they just didn’t feel that in addition to everything else they had on their plates that they should also be tasked with helping other women get promoted. Some of them claimed, “It’s just not fair! To get to my position I had to give up getting married, give up having children, give up vacation time and time with friends. I have no life but this job! That’s the only way you could make it here if you were a woman! And now here comes the next generation of women and they want to have it all – work/life balance, marriage and kids, time for family and assistance with daycare – and I am supposed to just make that happen for them?”
In this case, it is easy to see how the “Queen Bee” may be operating from a place of pain and loss rather than meanness and aggression. They feel they have suffered so much to get where they are – they gave up on other dreams to achieve what they have, and now it’s difficult to turn around and dedicate their time and passion to making things easy for others when it was so hard for them.
Now of course you may argue that this is not a very “evolved” attitude – that they are missing the big picture – that they are “wrong-headed” in their “It’s just not fair” childish reaction. And you’re right. But, while their approach is not what Mother Teresa would do, it is certainly human and understandable. And once we understand, we can begin to make a difference.
YOU’RE ASSIGNED THE “BAD COP” ROLE
Queen bees are creatures of circumstance just like anyone else. One of the executive women I interviewed described a feeling of “having no choice” in her Queen Bee reputation at work. She spent over 20 years working her way up the ranks to finally become the right-hand “man” (yes, I know she is a woman – but believe me, she was in a man’s world) for the CEO of the company. It was critical for the CEO to be loved by the employees – seen as the “good guy” and the benevolent, wise, leader. The company was going through significant change, and it was critical the employees view the CEO as kind-hearted and focused on doing what was best for everyone. But, as we all know, every good organization needs to have accountability. People who are not pulling their weight or who are actively working against the company mission need to be dealt with. And so, the “right-hand woman” was assigned the role of bad cop to the CEO’s good cop. Over the years, what started out as a role to play, became the reality of what people believed she was. And a reputation like that can be hard to shake.
And, being a really good “bad cop” was a huge part of her success. While social norms push us to believe that female bosses are supposed to be “softer” and “gentler” – in the cases of the successful women that I interviewed, such qualities were not the ones that won them the promotions. Even the author of the Wall Street Journal concedes that, “In the more cutthroat precincts of American achievement, women don’t reach the top by bringing in doughnuts in the morning.”
Where We Go Next…
Whether it is just the nature of top jobs or the perceptions of Queen Bee behaviors or a little of both, the reality for women leaders is that of increasing isolation. The women who achieve the highest ranks are still a strong minority in American business and government, and as such, they are more likely to be misunderstood. Those who work with them may never like them, have compassion for them, or understand their choices.
But, that doesn’t mean relationships don’t matter! If you are one of these women, then you need to find your support network somewhere else than in your office. You need a network of supporters in order to accomplish truly ambitious goals. Influential people have influential networks. People don’t get much done by themselves, no matter how smart and powerful they are. Just like any other successful leader, the Queen Bees of the world will need to build coalitions of other women with common goals in order to make a real difference in this world.
Perhaps through these peer relationships across industries and offices, even the worst Queen Bees will come to understand the fundamental Evolutionary concept that “it is not about you” – that there is a larger community that we are all responsible to and for in our work and in our life.
It’s time for ALL of us – Queen Bees, worker bees, and wannabes to begin to truly seek to understand each other instead of pointing fingers, laying blame and assigning negative labels. That’s where we have to go next if we are really going to change the world.