Why Your Queen Bee Boss Won't Help You

Last Updated Jul 8, 2011 4:46 PM EDT

We all realize there are times when our boss can't or won't take our sides. But for women, there's often nothing more infuriating than the female boss who is cold, distant, and refuses to associate with female colleagues. She's not called the Queen Bee for nothing.

A study by Belle Derks of Leiden University, in the upcoming issue of Psychological Science, takes a look behind this stereotype to try to explain why some powerful women, at least, seem uninterested in helping their female colleagues. After analyzing the research, Derks believes that

  • "Queen Bee" behavior is a result of being a powerful woman in a sexist environment
  • "Queen Bee" behavior is a response to the threat of being marginalized. Derks wouldn't be surprised if similar behavior is found among high-level minority managers in a company where most of the top management is white.
Interviewing Queen Bees
Derks bases her conclusions on a series of interviews with 63 high-level police women. Because these women are very successful in a culture that is overwhelmingly male, Derks thought they might exhibit some of the behavior of queen bees.

Half the police officers were asked to recall an instance when they were discriminated against. The other half were asked to recall an instance when gender bias was not a factor.

When asked subsequent questions, the women who were asked about an instance of discrimination had greater sensitivity toward their co-workers. Those who recalled an instance where gender discrimination was irrelevant were more likely to answer questions in a way that distanced them from other women. They saw themselves as separate and different from other women in the organization. They even described their leadership styles as "masculine."

Derks says the many so-called "queen bees" may actually be insecure in their positions.

Whenever people notice that a group to which they belong is not valued as highly, there is the option of distancing oneself from the group...In a sense, (being a) queen bee is simply a way of getting ahead in a company where femininity is not valued very highly.
Derks also speculates that her study shows the effects of tokenism on individuals, and that 'queen bee' behavior is a way for people who fear they may be tokens to hold onto their power.
If you agree (with your male coworkers) that women are not very capable, but that you are an exception, you are more likely to be picked out as the woman who can prove that gender bias is no longer an issue.
The solution, writes Derks, lies in more women attaining positions of power. Once there are enough women in the highest levels of organizations, she says, they will no longer need to justify their leadership style or feel pressure to prove themselves more masculine than the men.

Do you fit this description? Have you ever worked for a woman who does?

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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor, and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.