Queen Bees are the consequence not the cause of sexist work-places

Queen Bee is a term used in business psychology to refer to women in senior positions who boast about their own masculine attributes, whilst derogating their female subordinates and endorsing sexist stereotypes. According to articles in the popular press, the presence of Queen Bees is as much a cause of gender inequality at work as is the sexism shown by men. A new article by Belle Derks and her colleagues challenges this claim, arguing instead that sexist work-places are a breeding ground for Queen Bees – that the latter are a consequence, not a cause, of sexism at work.

Derks team surveyed 94 women holding senior positions in several Dutch organisations (in the Netherlands, women make up only 7 per cent of the boards of the largest 100 companies and on average earn 6.5 per cent lower pay than men). The central finding was that those women who showed all the hall-marks of a Queen Bee tended to recall having suffered more sexism and prejudice in their own careers and, moreover, tended to report feeling less identification with other women when they started their careers.

According to Derks and her colleagues, when women join a sexist work-place, they have two options – they can either bolster their ties to other women or they can distance themselves from their feminine identity. The new findings are consistent with the idea that women who have a weaker feminine identity in the first place are more likely to go for the second option. Derks’ central point is that it’s the sexist culture that forces women to make this choice and start on the path to becoming a Queen Bee.

As with so much psychological research, this study suffers from the serious weakness of being cross-sectional in design. This means that rather than a sexist culture causing women to reject their feminine identity and become a Queen Bee, the effect could work backwards such that being a Queen Bee somehow makes you more likely to recall being the victim of sexism. However, the researchers argue this is unlikely – if anything they think established Queen Bees would be likely to downplay the presence of gender discrimination.

The new results have important implications for organisations seeking to reduce sexism. Simply appointing a few token female senior managers in a sexist culture is likely to backfire as this will dispose them to becoming Queen Bees, thus worsening the situation for their female subordinates. Instead greater emphasis should be placed on reducing sexist beliefs and practices in the organisation. ‘In companies that ensure that women can achieve career success without having to forgo their gender identification,’ the researchers said, ‘women in senior positions are more likely to become inspiring role models who have positive attitudes about the potential of their female subordinates.’
Derks B, Ellemers N, van Laar C, and de Groot K (2010). Do sexist organizational cultures create the Queen Bee? The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society PMID: 20964948

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

8 thoughts on “Queen Bees are the consequence not the cause of sexist work-places”

  1. This article suggests that sexism in the workplace turns women into “queen bees” – meaning that some women in these environments cope by distancing themselves from their own femininity and from other women. Maybe so, but there's another obvious possibility that isn't mentioned: that queen bees are attracted to workplaces that have high incidence of sexism because they already feel alienated from femininity and other women. This possible explanation is even suggested by the evidence that was gathered in the study (queen bees reported “feeling less identification with other women when they started their careers.”) and yet it is not discussed in the article.

    They also dismiss the idea that being a queen bee makes you more likely to recall being the victim of sexism, with out giving evidence (only opinion) for why this isn't likely. To my mind, it isn't clear at all that queen bees “would be likely to downplay the presence of gender discrimination.” The hallmark of a queen bee is that she is a power player. Why would she not use every available card (including claiming to have been subjected to sexism and yet still have risen to the top) to continue to gain and exercise power? After all, as the article notes, queen bees see themselves as different from (superior to) other women, and recalling sexism that they shrugged off (because they are stronger and more masculine than average women) fits perfectly with the psychology.

    This article is useless, except as an example of what is wrong with the social 'sciences'.

  2. Hi Robert
    thanks for your comments. I thought I ought to mention that the authors go into a lot more detail about why the direction of causality is unlikely to be the other way around (i.e. being a Queen Bee makes you more likely to recall past workplaces being sexist), but I only had the space here to touch on this very briefly.

  3. I would say that the article isn't at all useless because it spawns questions…observations were made, and hopefully they will lead to further research. A common problem with social science research is that the available tools are far less precise than in most other fields of study, so individual studies will often generate more questions than answers. Unfortunately, we humans can be far too impatient to embrace that sort of thing.

  4. @Tim. I agree
    But, I'm not sure that precision and question generation are just issues for the social sciences – I think that they are issues for the scientific method in general. Part of the challenge for all research, whether it is in the sciences of the social sciences is understanding the limits of the measures and the methodology and (as you say) taking knowledge forwards. Certainly, there are branches of the physical sciences that also struggle with precision and interpretation.

  5. This research rang very true to me. I've worked in several nearly exclusive male environments. Although like all research, it was necessarily narrow & only gives a small piece of the puzzle, it is helpful.

    Also telling was @Robert Johnson's comment. His thinking is prevalent among most white males who have not ever had to fend for oneself as a minority. He has bought into the media image of white men as victims of reverse discrimination. Perhaps he is having a bad day?

    In reality, any woman or black who has found themselves fortunate enough to be given a place at the table realizes full-well that it is contingent upon “good” behavior. Any woman who has came up through the ranks also quickly discovers that when you have your breasts pinched or joked about, are called blt#h, and tested on other demeaning & sometimes dangerous ways by coworkers & supervisors, filing a complaint gets you double the trouble.

    There are several men who have commented to me about how odd they think it is when the Queen Bee is so hard on new women. It isn't odd at all. It makes sense when women sense (rightly or wrongly) that there are only a few slots for the XY. A new XY can screw up all the sacrifice & hardwork you've given to build credibility in women by being less-than-perfect/not-understanding-the-rules-of-this-particular-male-game. Or they can simply take your spot if it is a zero-sum game.

  6. Lt,

    I think it is very telling that you have attempted to undermine my comments on the basis that they came from a white male. You don't actually rebut any of my points. White, male, bad day, not a 'minority' (at least not one that you recognize) – none of these have anything to do with my arguments. And, of course, none of my arguments have anything to do with men being victims of reverse discrimination (a position you attribute to me without evidence).

    In case I haven't been clear, my criticism of the study is that it doesn't compellingly deal with alternative explanations of the data. I think other commentors recognized my point, even if they disagree.

    To Christian, I would like to apologize for the harshness of my tone. I've gotten used to a combative style of dialog, and genuinely didn't mean to come across as offensively as I now realize I did. I do appreciate being able to read, at no cost, summaries of research. Sorry for being a troll.

    To Michelle, I am interested in your point. As you have no doubt recognized, part of what motivated my criticism is an interest in what 'counts' as science. I think it's important to ask the question because efforts that don't produce new knowledge at best waste resources, and at worst convince people to believe things that aren't true. So with that in mind, can you recommend further reading that I might do that can help me to better appreciate how scientists of all stripes ensure that their interpretations of data are meaningful?

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