Are bullying "Queen Bees" holding you back in the workplace?

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Anna Brech
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Sexist men aren’t the only problem women face in the workplace, as a new study sheds light on the undermining behaviour of female colleagues

From a glaring gender pay gap to promotion sexism and maternity discrimination, women face an uphill battle for equality in the workplace.

And while it would be nice to think our female colleagues stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us in this mission, that’s not always the case according to an intriguing new report.

London-based banking consultant Cecilia Harvey has commissioned a study into what she calls “Queen Bee Syndrome” at work.

“Queen bees are women [who] treat colleagues in a demoralising, undermining, or bullying manner,” Harvey tells The Sunday Times. “They are adult versions of the mean girls from school.”

Harvey’s survey found that a massive 70 out of 100 UK female executives had been bullied by their female bosses, while a further 33 said they had been undermined by women on the same level as them or below. 

 In her paper on the topic published in the journal Development and Learning in Organisations, Harvey draws awareness to the problem of female bullying in the workplace through a combination of studies, practical experience and observations.

This “negative woman-on-woman behaviour”, she says, is something that “can be ignored” by organisations despite its detrimental impact.

“This adds a new layer of complexity to the old idea that it is sexist men who hold women back,” says Harvey, who is also the founder of global network Tech Women Today. “If organisations want to increase the number of women in senior roles then they need to take account of the queen bee problem.

“I have definitely experienced it. Just when you might have expected women to band together and support each other, they were instead diminishing each other — in my case, talking about me or excluding me.”

While many of us have brilliant relationships with other women at our work, it’s important not to let idealism over solidarity blur our vision on this issue.

Harvey’s research highlights just how complex office bullying can be. Much as we might want to believe in a world where women are forever helping each other out, the reality is sometimes different. 

And this isn’t about handbags at dawn clichés here, but instead acknowledging one in a line of workplace truisms that could be holding us back.

As Madeline Albright famously said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” 

This study is a timely reminder for women to support one another in building a better future. Because we’ve got big enough battles to wage as it is.

Images: Getty


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.