The myth of the 'queen bee': Work and sexism

Female bosses sometimes have a reputation for not being very nice. Some display what's called "queen bee" behavior, distancing themselves from other women and refusing to help other women as they rise through the ranks. Now, a new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, concludes that it's wrong to blame the woman for this behavior; instead, blame the sexist environment.

Belle Derks of Leiden University in the Netherlands has done a lot of research on how people respond to sexism. From her own observations of women in the workplace, she thinks that women are often held to a different standard than men; behavior that would be seen positively in men, such as , is seen negatively when women do it. Derks co-wrote the study with Colette van Laar, Naomi Ellemers, and Kim De Groot.

Derks and her colleagues wondered if the queen bee behavior—denying that gender discrimination is a problem, for example—might be a response to a difficult, male-dominated environment. They gave a web-based questionnaire to 63 senior women in police departments in three Dutch cities. One of the first questions was about how important their gender identity was at work. For example, they were asked how much they identify with other women in the police force.

For the experiment, half of the participants were told to write about an example of a situation where they thought being a woman was detrimental to them at work, they were discriminated against, or heard other people talking negatively about women. The other half were told to write about a time when their gender was no issue at all and they were valued for their personal abilities.

Then the women were asked about their leadership style, how different they thought they were from other women, and whether they felt gender bias was an issue in the police force. How women answered these questions depended on the strength of their gender identity at work. Women who had been primed to think about gender bias answered like queen bees—that they had a masculine leadership style, that they were very different from other women and gender bias wasn't a problem—only if they had started out by saying they identified weakly with women at work. Those who identified strongly with their gender at work had the opposite response – when they thought about gender bias, they said afterwards that they were motivated to mentor other women.

The fact that only certain women engage in behavior, and only after they've been primed to think about gender bias, suggests that for organizations that want more women at the top, simply putting women in high-up positions and expecting them to mentor other women won't work. "If you simply put women at higher positions without doing anything about gender bias in the organization, these women will be forced to distance themselves from the group," Derks says. They may deny that exists, or avoid helping women below them. "If you set women up this way, so they have to choose between their opportunities and the opportunities of the group, some will choose themselves. Why should you choose your group? Men don't have to."

Related Stories

Gender affects reaction to HIV-prevention materials

Jun 10, 2008

Various intervention strategies have been implemented to curb the rise of HIV, and a factor that might affect exposure to interventionsis gender. A new study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology reviewed the behavi ...

Cat-calls are detrimental to everyone

Mar 18, 2010

For every woman who is a direct target of sexism, there are others who witness the event and are also affected. The actions of one sexist man affect how female bystanders feel and behave towards men in general. Stephenie ...

Women Are Sort of More Tentative Than Men, Aren't They?

Aug 24, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Women hedge, issue disclaimers and ask questions when they communicate, language features that can suggest uncertainty, lack of confidence and low status. But men do the same, according to new research from ...

Studies' message to women: Keep your cool

Apr 02, 2008

New Haven, Conn.-Whether you are running for president or looking for a clerical job, you cannot afford to get angry if you are a woman, Yale University psychologist Victoria Brescoll has found.

Recommended for you

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2020
1 / 5 (1) Jun 20, 2011
"some women will choose themselves. Why should you choose your group? Men don't have to"
Indeed: If only all women were exactly the same. Often ethnic minorities, especially in western cultures are all too sensitive, too aware of the general view held by the dominant culture(s). Women do NOT discriminate against other women? Men do NOT discriminate against other men? 'Women' are NOT MONOLITHIC, they are not ONE BEING. In America WHITE women help their WHITE spouses choose to ignore the value of the associations they form in business and on jobs with women of COLOR why? Often FOR COLOR/RACE SAKE, Often! This report wants to act as though all the failings of promotion and any tendency to ignore a fellow female is because of promotional pressures - that ignores all the other dynamics especially that BIG one. Europe HAD NO civil rights movement where dozens of groups 'came out' against oppression - so those OTHER issues were never argued...either! Hate is easy & shameful!
word-to-ya-mutha
2020
1 / 5 (1) Jun 20, 2011
"If you simply put women at higher positions without doing anything about gender bias in the organization, these women will be forced to distance themselves from the group,"
This article and any such corporate experiment would have to control for ETHNIC indifference and hate. It would have to take into account generational conflict -one likes Lady gaga and the upstart likes the tie-dyed sixties look and still has NOT GOTTEN MARRIED AND OR PREGNANT. Plenty of women discriminate against women who MIGHT get pregnant and cost the company that year of maternity leave - a year is common in countries like Canada for example. Male executives weigh that pregnancy issue and YES there are women who do the exact SAME THING! In that way, why yes, they DO appear to govern just like men...and just as badly!
After a while the companies, viewing all these 'variables' just give up trying. They just cannot get human men or women to do the right thing without extraordinary efforts.
word-to-ya-muthas

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.