Queen Bees – victims or oppressors?

Queen Bees (QBs) are women in senior positions who boast about their own masculine attributes whilst putting down their female subordinates.

Some people believe that QBs cause as many problems as sexist men and are just as likely to cause gender inequality in the workplace.

A Dutch team has challenged that assertion and thinks that sexist workplaces are a breeding ground for QBs, that they are a consequence not a cause of sexism at work.

We can probably all think about women who came across as tough as nails – I saw a few around the NHS in my time there –  and those of you with long enough memories may be thinking of Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir – said to be “the toughest man” in the Israeli cabinet at the time.

Bella Derks and her team interviewed 94 senior women in a rage of organisations in the Netherlands and found that those who showed the hallmarks of being QBs all recalled suffering sexism and prejudice in their careers and also identified less with other women.

Derks thinks that women in those situations have two options: either strengthen their ties with other women or distance themselves from their femininity.  She is basically saying that it is the sexist culture which forces some women to make a choice and become QBs.

The research methodology means that you can’t be sure whether a sexist culture forces women to renounce their femininity and become QBs or whether being a QB makes it more likely that you will recall being the subject of sexism. The researchers think the latter unlikely and believe that it is more likely that QBs would play down the presence of gender discrimination.

But why would they? Wouldn’t they be proud to have overcome discrimination? And surely not all of them would become QBs anyway. And what about the ones who took the other option to get closer to other women? Isn’t it more likely that there is a predisposition to behave in this way, an aspect of their personality?

If Derks and her colleagues are right however it suggests that appointing token women into sexist cultures will backfire as they are more likely to become QBs thereby making it worse for their female subordinates. (Maybe that’s why most people prefer working for men).

The researchers say for women to become inspiring role models who have positive attitudes about the potential of female subordinates companies would have to ensure that; “women can achieve career success without having to forgo their gender identification”

In other words behave like women and don’t try to outdo the men by being more masculine. There is evidence that when women play to their strengths they are really trusted and respected in organisations

Updated 25 July 2011: Eleanor Mills in the Sunday Times has picked up on a piece Derk published last week in Psychological Science in which she explains that QBs are bitchy because they do it to survive.

Derk says; “This isn’t just about women it’s a classic group behaviour. If you are  a member of a group which is undervalued in the wider culture you can pursue your own ambitions by distancing yourself from that group”. In the case of QBs they do it by identifying with the dominant men and by running down other women.

Or as Derk puts it; “QBs advance their careers through emphasising their masculine characteristics, expressing gender-stereotypical views of other women and denying g the existence of gender bias” and “QB behaviour leads successful women to distance themselves from other women reducing the likelihood that they will improve opportunities for other women or be seen as role models.”

The rest of Mills piece is about the lack of women at the top ie only 13.9% in FTSE100 although she concedes that women are well represented at what she calls the “marzipan layer” just below. And the building up of a critical mass as more women get on boards she thinks will do away with QB behaviour.

I still think that there are elements of QB behaviour which reflect personality traits and predispositions. Under pressure dark side behaviours will emerge and women are more prone to suffering ill-health when stressed.

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