The ‘queen bee’ phenomenon is a myth, new research shows

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Moya Crockett
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Women don’t mistreat junior female colleagues when they succeed in male-dominated settings, according to new research: quite the opposite. 

From Regina George to Margaret Thatcher, the figure of the ‘queen bee’ – a powerful woman whose success in a male-dominated setting goes hand-in-hand with her subordination and mistreatment of other women – has long been a staple of pop culture and media narratives.

However, according to new research, the queen bee phenomenon may be a myth. A study published recently in The Leadership Quarterly journal showed that in environments where senior leaders are granted significant power and discretion, female leaders treat more junior female colleagues kindly and respectfully. They also appoint more subordinate women to managerial positions, which has the effect of reducing pay inequality relative to men in similar roles. 

Researchers looked at 8.3 million organisations across 5,600 municipalities in Brazil, and found that when a woman was elected the leader of a public organisation there was a subsequent increase in the number of other women occupying senior and middle-management positions.

Paulo Arvate, professor of economics and strategy at the São Paolo Business School of Getulio Vargas Foundation, was the lead author on the study. He said he believed negative beliefs about the queen bee phenomenon had been influenced by anecdotal observations and flawed surveys rather than in-depth research.

“Previous research on the queen bee phenomenon stems from illustrative case studies that are not representative or surveys that do not establish the true causal effects of appointing women to power,” he said. 

Regina George: the archetypal fictional queen bee

The term ‘queen bee syndrome’ was coined in the Seventies following a study by Graham Staines, Toby Epstein Jayaratne and Carol Tavris, researchers at the University of Michigan. After analysing 200,000 responses to a survey published in two magazines, they found that women who achieved success in male-dominated fields were sometimes likely to oppose the ascent of other women.

Staines, Epstein and Tavris weren’t entirely unsympathetic to the queen bee: they argued that successful women behaved in this way because of the patriarchal nature of the workplace, which encouraged them to become fixated on maintaining their authority. However, Professor Arvate, the author of this most recent study into queen bees, warned that research such as theirs could have damaging consequences in the long run.

“These studies have reinforced the stereotype that women do not make good leaders,” he said.

Studies into the queen bee myth have reinforced the idea that women are not natural leaders, says Professor Paulo Arvate

It’s perhaps not surprising that so much research has been dedicated to maintaining the myth of the queen bee: if the enduring popularity of The Real Housewives franchise has taught us anything, it’s that the world loves the idea of women not getting along. However, questions have been raised about the reliability of several studies into the phenomenon.

Case in point: in 2015, research was published by strategy professors who had spent 20 years studying the top management at 1,500 companies over 20 years. At first, they thought they had found evidence for the queen bee phenomenon, as when one woman reached senior management, it became 51% less likely that a second woman would rise to her level.

But once the researchers looked more closely at the dynamics between the employees working at management level, a different story emerged. There wasn’t one queen bee preventing other women from joining her at the top; in fact, male executives were the ones blocking more than one woman from ascending the career ladder. When women were made chief executive, the opposite was true, and women stood more chance of being promoted to senior management than when the chief executive was a man.

Margaret Thatcher

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has often been depicted as a political queen bee for failing to appoint other women politicians 

In 2016, Sheryl Sandberg highlighted the problem with the queen bee narrative (what she called “the myth of the catty woman”) in an op-ed for The New York Times. In her view, queen bees are not a cause, but a consequence of inequality. “A talented woman presents a threat if there’s only one seat for a woman at the table,” she observed.

However, Sandberg disputed the idea that women are inherently more likely to fall into patterns of queen bee behaviour if they become successful, citing research that shows how having women in positions of corporate and political power increases the chances of other women rising to the top.

“Queen bees exist, but they’re far less common than we think,” she said. “Women aren’t any meaner to women than men are to one another. Women are just expected to be nicer. We stereotype men as aggressive and women as kind. When women violate those stereotypes, we judge them harshly.”

Images: Getty Images / Pixabay / Rex Features