Queen bee bosses ‘not to blame for sexism’

Female bosses who are seen as overly aggressive and competitive and deny any attempts to support their women colleagues are not to blame for their behaviour, according to new research.

Female bosses who are seen as overly aggressive and competitive and deny any attempts to support their women colleagues are not to blame for their behaviour, according to new research.

Their “queen bee” behaviour is a reaction to an overly male environment, says a new study which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The study led by Belle Derks of Leiden University in the Netherlands studied senior women in police departments in three Dutch cities. They found that queen bee types tended to deny any male bias in the workplace, described their leadership style in “masculine” forms and distanced themselves from other women in their organisation. Women leaders who did not show these tendencies were more likely to want to help their fellow female colleagues, for instance, by acting as mentors. The more discrimination was highlighted in an organisation, the more the queen bee types sought to differentiate themselves from other women.

Derks concludes that schemes like getting senior women to act as mentors are not enough without tackling gender bias in organisations from the grassroots up so that there is a critical mass of women at the top.

She spoke to Workingmums.co.uk about her work:

WM: What are the implications for employers who want to encourage greater gender diversity? Many focus on promoting positive role models. Your research suggests that this does not work in the absence of tackling the overall gender barriers at work. Yet many employers believe this is vital to encourage women up the career ladder. This is particularly true of women who are balancing work and family responsibilities. Is it not best for employers to do both – tackle overall discrimination and promote positive role models?

BD: I completely agree with you! It is very important for women who are still at the beginning of their career to have positive female role models. What is important, however, is that often companies simply promote one or two women who fit their masculine prototype of what it means to be a leader. As a result, in order to fit in, the last thing these women will do is to mentor other women and be a positive role model. I think it is important that there is a critical number of women at the top.

When the association between masculinity and leadership is reduced because there is a critical number of women in higher positions, women no longer feel that dissociating themselves from other women is necessary to strengthen their own position. So what organisations need to do is to coach a larger number of promising women into leadership positions (without communicating that they explicitly coach women and not men, because then this still suggests that these women would not have achieved this without help). When a sufficient number of women achieves success, this also becomes more feasible and motivating for women in lower positions.

WM: You say that the queen bee phenomenon is less likely if gender discrimination is played down, but this may in turn impact on women leaders who see to collectively help other women up the career ladder. Is the queen bee phenomenon therefore something we have to live with while promoting greater gender equality?

BD: Not necessarily. What we are saying is that the specific control condition we used in the experiment should not be taken as the ideal situation. In our control condition, the existence of gender bias was downplayed, which indeed reduced queen bee responses among low identifiers, but also reduced collective responses among high identifiers. I think there is a difference between denying gender bias, and asking women to only focus on the positive situations they experienced, and making sure that gender is no longer an issue. Our results were found in an organisation where gender bias IS an issue, but if you do something about this gender bias, for example, by making sure that women do get promoted, our prediction is that low and high identifiers become more similar and will promote and coach women as well as men. The main point is that when gender is a negative thing, low identifiers will distance themselves from other women and turn into queen bees. One way to counter this is by ignoring gender bias (as in our experiment), but another is to actually do something about it.

WM: How common did you find the queen bee type woman versus the highly gendered senior women? It seems it is a bit of a vicious circle if queen bees rise to the top and work against their female colleagues and deny discrimination. How can change be achieved? In the UK, queen bee types tend to get a lot of press coverage, for instance, when progressive legislation is put forward…

BD: The group we studied, women in the police force, had a relatively low gender identification compared to previous studies we did. As such, I think it is quite positive that even there we found women who said they were willing to work for the advancement of other women. In our studies gender identification and queen bee behaviour are all relative terms, as we look at a range of possible gender identification levels and then conclude that in relative terms, the higher identification is, the more likely it becomes that women respond to gender bias primes with collective action. I think most women do a little bit of both. Also, organisations may affect gender identification in that they 1) attract specific women (for example, relatively low identifiers in the police force) and 2) cultivate low or high gender identification (queen bees will probably disidentify more and more over time; high identifiers will respond to sexism with increased identification, but may also leave gender-biased organisations in favour of more positive work environments). Again, I want to stress that our conclusion is that queen bee behaviour will exist as long as it is rewarded. When an organisation is more gender neutral and more women are found in top positions, it is no longer rewarding for women to say that they are so different from other women. They may still identify very little with other women, but they will no longer be motivated to use that characteristic as a way to get ahead. As such, queen bee behaviour will become extinct when our stereotype of what it means to be a leader overlaps more with our stereotype of women.

WM: How will you take this research forward?

BD: One thing that I’m interested in examining is whether queen bee behaviour actually pays off. Society judges women who try to improve their own outcomes at the expense of other women very harshly (much more harsh than they judge men who compete amongst each other). But still, it seems that queen bees are very successful. I would like to examine whether behaving like a queen bee (being negative about other women, denying the existence of gender bias and presenting oneself as quite masculine) pays off and increases your promotion opportunities in masculine settings. Maybe it would even be possible to show that men would behave similarly in a feminine environment in which being less masculine and distancing themselves from other men is rewarding. My aim is to reveal the organisational dynamics that promote this behaviour. This would help to prove even more that this phenomenon is not specifically about women, but is a survival technique in gender-biased work environments.

Picture credit: Photostock and www.freedigitalphotos.com

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