We were recently interviewing someone for a research project that focuses on the continued lack of women on boards in the UK. This man had spent years recruiting at the board level and was well versed in the topic. He offered the following explanation for why there weren’t more women on boards: "once a board has a woman on it, she will often actively prevents other women from joining their boards."
This is the Queen Bee trope: the idea that successful women impede other women in their careers, or that successful women often treat their women subordinates more harshly or with greater scrutiny than men would. Of all the stereotypes about women in the workplace that we contend with, this is the one of the most problematic for two reasons. First, it once again shifts the blame for women’s lack of progress on to women. It claims that the problem isn’t a gender biased system or active discrimination by (mostly male) decision makers, it’s senior women. Second, it is problematic because it is incredibly sticky. Despite having little evidence in the academic literature, it is remarkably persistent as a narrative for why women don’t succeed.
In this newsletter, we want to unpack the Queen Bee stereotype and give you some advice on how to address it.
Are Queen Bees holding women back in the workplace?
The short answer: No, they are not.
The long answer: Often when people ask us about Queen Bees, they begin with an anecdote about a former or current female colleague who seems uninterested in helping other women. Maybe you have even worked with a woman like this yourself. We do not deny the reality that there are some people – women included – who are not interested in sponsoring the careers of others. The question we are answering here is not whether there are some women who don’t help other women (just as there are some men who don’t help other men). The question we are interested in answering here is whether women holding other women back is such a widespread phenomenon that it could be a key explanation for women’s lack of progress in the workplace.
The answer is no, it is not. There is no serious, replicable academic research that we know of (and we’ve looked) supporting the idea that organizations are full of Queen Bees working to hold other women back.
There are, however, some very specific circumstances in which we may see women distancing themselves from other women in the workplace. Note, we said distancing themselves, meaning social distancing, not actively sabotaging other women. This can happen when women are in the numerical minority and when their workplace is highly sexist. In these circumstances, women are aware that others see being a woman as a liability, so they focus their social attention on the dominant group – men. They believe that developing ties with and mentoring high potential men will get them more recognition and advancement than the same behaviors with high potential women.
However, this is not necessarily an effective approach for women. One of our favorite studies pointing to this fact examined women Champagne grape growers in France. Women in this region are in the numerical minority and are negatively stereotyped – not to mention actively excluded – by the male growers. However, women were able to command systematically higher prices for their grapes than the male growers – i.e., they outperformed the men. Why? The women growers compensated for their exclusion by the men by sharing information about what prices they were able to negotiate will sellers, meaning they were better equipped for negotiations. The point is, context may motivate women to distance themselves from other women, but doing so usually serves to reinforces the negative environment for women. A smarter approach is to actively collaborate with other women to make the whole workplace for everyone.
So if there is little evidence that Queen Bees are responsible for women's lack of progress in the workplace, where does the Queen Bee trope come from? The answer is, as usual, gender stereotypes.
The Warmth-Competence See-Saw
When we discussed gender stereotypes in performance reviews, we highlighted that such stereotypes typically portray women as warm but incompetent.
This is not the whole story. Sometimes we cannot help but notice that a woman is competent. For example, we may believe that women are not competent, but if our female colleague is the top billing solicitor every month, it is hard for us to ignore her competence. You might assume – or hope – that such women benefit from being stereotyped as warm (like most women) but will also have her competence recognized due to her undeniably high performance. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead, we see that when women perform highly, they tend to get downgraded on warmth. In practice, this means that high-performing women are often disliked and denigrated by others. This is where a lot of negative images about “career women” come from, including the Queen Bee trope. The reason why it is so sticky despite the lack of any robust evidence to support it is because it fits our stereotyped expectations that competent women are cold. Another example is the idea that only women who forgo their femininity and adopt masculine qualities like aggression and single-mindedness can make it to the top of organizations.
By now you can see that women experience a “Catch 22” in the workplace: nice women are seen as insufficiently competent, whereas competent women are seen as insufficiently nice. We call this Catch 22 the warmth competence see-saw: women are constantly navigating a trade-off between being seen as likable and being seen as competent.
Unfortunately, being seen as competent but cold has real consequences - including being seen as a queen bee. Likeability is a subjective, shifting standard where gender bias thrives. Being unlikable is often laundered as performance feedback about client interactions, subordinate respect, and peer rapport, meaning that it becomes a reason not to promote women in the workplace. The problem, then, is not companies filled with women trying to keep other women down. Instead, the problem is the persistence of gender stereotypes which make us try to put unhelpful women into a box labeled "Queen Bee", while we let unhelpful men just be.
1. Confront the Queen Bee and other “competent but cold” stereotypes whenever you hear them. We wrote about how to effectively confront gender bias in the workplace here. A go-to phrase that helps us confront these problematic stereotypes is to point out that there is no masculine equivalent of a Queen Bee. This also works as a question – ask people what the male equivalent of a Queen Bee is (and when they can’t find one, let the silence hang awkwardly).
2. Do not try to be more likable. All human beings have a fundamental need to belong, meaning when we learn that someone does not like us, we are naturally inclined to address this with them. For women in the workplace, this can be a trap. Remember you are not getting this feedback because you are not likable, you are getting this feedback because you are successful – it is a product of gender bias, not your behavior. This means that short of being less successful, it is unlikely that there is any way that you could change your behavior to make people like you more.
Maybe you see a grain of truth in the idea that you could be more likable – you feel less popular than you want to be in the workplace. That’s also ok – that doesn’t mean you are playing into gender stereotypes. We always support women (and men) working to improve themselves in order to be their best and achieve their goals. What we do not support is women being pressured to change in order to fulfill others’ flawed expectations – to become the stereotype.
3. Focus others on what is performance-relevant. When competent but cold stereotypes are applied to you or women you work with, either formally or informally, we are often tempted to disagree. The problem with this approach is that you cannot argue with opinion - and that’s all feedback about likeability is. A better approach is to ask how this feedback is performance-relevant. We worked with an organization where more senior team members would review more junior members, with their feedback being collated and presented in annual performance reviews. In one of these reviews, a senior individual presented a personal non-work related conflict she had with a female junior member as performance feedback. Fortunately, in this case, she was told that it was inappropriate for her to bring this into the performance review as it was an interpersonal matter, and she was encouraged to address it directly with the junior team member in question. This is the approach we encourage you and all organizations to adopt. Ask how the feedback is relevant to performance standards, how it is objectively measured, and for evidence that it is a performance standard applied consistently to women and men.
Of course, sometimes likeability seems performance-relevant (even if it is an inherently subjective and shifting standard). In those cases, we suggest you focus on effectiveness. If you are a team leader and your subordinates evaluate your leadership style negatively, then take this feedback and ask how you can develop your effectiveness as a leader. Perhaps you need to invest in coaching or training on those specific skills – we encourage you to do so. However, if this workplace is saying that you can only be effective if you fulfill the stereotyped expectations of others, it might be time for a change.
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Our favorite part of teaching is the end of class, when students come to chat with us about the content, share examples from their own lives, ask questions about what they are struggling with, and challenge our thinking. We invite you to do the same – let us know how this exercise worked for you, what you are still struggling with, and what questions we can answer in our upcoming podcasts and newsletters.
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