AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger

Women make up nearly half of the workforce,  but they're still largely underrepresented in leadership positions.  In fact, according to a 2020 analysis by Mercer, of over 1,000 organizations around the world, women make up just 23 percent of executives and only 29 percent of senior managers. Instead, women are over-represented in support functions, such as administration. These positions don't tend to lead to CEO or board-level positions of authority.

So, when some women do break through glass ceilings to C-suite positions, it's no surprise that there's some level of toxicity at the top. Enter: The "Queen Bee Syndrome." 

What is "Queen Bee Syndrome?"

"Queen Bee Syndrome" refers to women who are in leadership positions who are overly critical of their female subordinates.  They're the "queen bees" of their organizations who often stereotype the women below them. Some may even set out to "fix" the women beneath them, as well. In doing so, they treat these women poorly on the basis of their gender.

HR Zone puts it this way: "'Queen Bee Syndrome' refers to women in authority or power who treat subordinate females worse than males purely because of their gender." According to HR Zone, there is another definition, as well. This "describes a woman who has personal and professional success but who refuses to share knowledge and tips with other women to help them achieve their own success."

"Queen Bee Syndrome" was first identified by psychologists in 1973 at the University of Michigan. Since it was first recognized, there's been a plethora of research about "Queen Bee Syndrome." A study of university faculty members suggested that "Queen Bee Syndrome" is alive and well. The researchers asked the faculty members to rate their students' commitment to their doctoral programs. Male faculty members ranked both male and female students as equally committed, and the students self-reported the same level of commitment. But the female faculty members reported that the female students were less committed than the male students. Another recent study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology showed similar patterns between senior-level female professors and their female graduate students. 

"Why would senior women judge up-and-coming women more harshly?" asks Kim Elsesser for Forbes. "Evidence indicates that they are not just being catty or mean. Instead it’s a way the women cope with the gender discrimination they’ve faced in their own career. Women who experienced bias may begin to emphasize how different they are from other women and may also begin to apply gender stereotypes they themselves have encountered."

Why is "Queen Bee Syndrome" toxic?

Not only does "Queen Bee Syndrome" impact women's self-esteem when the women above them (and the men above them) treat them poorly, it also perpetuates gender discrimination and "organizational hazing." This refers to when women in authority positions "prepare" other women beneath them for success by putting them through what they feel they had to go through.

Because many of these "queen bees" feel like they did not receive support and had to make sacrifices to get to where they are, they feel the need to put other women through the same treatment. They do so by behaving in more masculine manners, according to research. 

Take, for example, one woman named Marie who Khazan writes she met at a women's networking happy hour.

"At a previous job as a defense-industry analyst, Marie had had two bosses, a man and a woman," Khazan recalls. "She was assigned to cover Haiti when the 2010 earthquake struck, forcing her to work long, difficult hours. The male manager praised her, but the woman made her a target. When Marie forgot to close a quotation mark in a report, her female boss denounced her as a plagiarist and eventually pushed her out. Marie’s takeaway: 'You should not outshine the boss.'"

Of course, all of this perpetuates sexism in the workplace. Women now have to face discrimination from their male counterparts and other women in the workplace. This makes it pretty impossible for them to move up, only further slowing women's advancement into leadership positions. And, because research shows that women are more likely to hire and promote other women, if there are less women in a position to do the hiring and promoting, less and less women will make it there.

"Queen bees," however, often like it better this way.

"I saw it particularly in medicine — queen bees preening and enjoying being the only woman," Professor Dame Sally Davies, England's first female chief medical officer, told the BBC.

It's important to note, however, that not all women who work at the top and are "tough" are "queen bees."

"B****iness is in the eye of the beholder, and the term queen bee sometimes gets flung at women who are just trying to do their job," writes Olga Khazan for The Atlantic.  She puts it this way:

"You could call it managing while female: Many studies have shown that people — men and women alike — can’t tolerate so much as a hint of toughness coming from a woman, even when she’s in charge. The most notorious double standard is that women can’t break into important jobs unless they advocate for themselves and command respect. But they’re also reviled unless they act like chipper and self-deprecating team players, forever passing the credit along to others. 

She adds that, "when women do slip outside the lines and behave assertively, other women are sometimes the ones who blast them for it. "

So, how can we fix "Queen Bee Syndrome?"

Facing "Queen Bee Syndrome" in the workplace isn't fun for anyone — it's not fun for the women who feel that they have to prove themselves to female authorities who stack up the odds against them, and it's not fun for the "queen bees" who feel like they need to act the way they do in order to be successful.

While "Queen Bee Syndrome" has no place in the workplace, if you suspect it in yours, there are some steps you can take. 

  1. Give credit to other women where credit is due. While you shouldn't have to give credit to appease the masses or to share the credit, when it belong to you, you should lift other women up when they deserve it. 
  2. Support and advocate for each other in the workplace. Speak up for each other on each other's behalves, pass the microphone and echo each other's ideas. 
  3. Mentor the women beneath you. Instead of perpetuating workplace discrimination, mentor other women beneath you.

Of course, however, you cannot rid an organization of "Queen Bee Syndrome" by "fixing" the women in it. Organizations must fix themselves by hiring and promoting more women into leadership positions. By putting practices into place that forbid sexism in the workplace — and that hold perpetrators accountable.

"Employers could also make more of an effort to show talented women that they’re valued, since women who feel optimistic about their career prospects are less likely to tear one another down," writes Khazan. "Indeed, industries that are new and therefore lack entrenched social roles tend to be where this type of change takes place."

But all industries, including (and especially) male-dominated industries, need to create this kind of change.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.