The queen bee syndrome?

This is a place where we would like women in aid and development to come and feel supported and find resources and a community but then you have articles like this that pop up in the Wall Street Journal.

The Tyranny of the Queen Bee.

Bit scary to read to be honest.  I’ve been super lucky to have both men and women managers and colleagues/mentors that have been so supportive of me and my work.  They’ve helped me along the way, taught and shared with me many of their pearls of wisdom.  But then it seems you have can have this as well:

The term “queen bee syndrome” was coined in the 1970s, following a study led by researchers at the University of Michigan—Graham Staines, Toby Epstein Jayaratne and Carol Tavris—who examined promotion rates and the impact of the women’s movement on the workplace. In a 1974 article in Psychology Today, they presented their findings, based on more than 20,000 responses to reader surveys in that magazine and Redbook. They found that women who achieved success in male-dominated environments were at times likely to oppose the rise of other women. This occurred, they argued, largely because the patriarchal culture of work encouraged the few women who rose to the top to become obsessed with maintaining their authority.

The aid sector is notoriously a patriarchal, alpha male type culture of work.  I had posted this article on FaceBook and did in fact get a response from a woman who said she HAD faced this at work (her solution was to get out of there asap).  My questions for all of you:

Do you sometimes suspect you might be a queen bee?  What are those feelings and how do you deal with them?

Are you in a senior manager position as a woman and what do you see as your responsibility to women working with you?  Is it an equal playing field?  Do you have to feel responsibility for other women out there trying to follow your foot steps to senior level positions?

For my males out there:  ever see the dynamics of this play out and what are your thoughts on it?

I most certainly have my opinions on this and have been in senior level positions (at a women’s empowerment org where the woman to male ratio was seriously skewed on our side), however, before I get started (and I will), wanted to hear from others on this.



About Zehra

Zehra is a livelihoods and cash transfer specialist working in humanitarian contexts. She has also been a health and lifestyle coach for humanitarian aid workers. Loves food, bollywood and tweeting (@zehrarizvi).
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5 Responses to The queen bee syndrome?

  1. I’ve had the good fortune of working in 2 sectors overwhelmingly surrounded by women (many of my male friends are jealous). First as a physiotherapist in a hospital setting, and then as a development worker in the NGO field. Both of these times, there has been the misconception that working in these areas involves putting up with loads of “bitchiness” and “gossip”, simply because there are mostly women in the workplace. In fact, there have been times when I feel like I have been treated better because I am a man, and am not seen as such a threat to some of my female colleagues. It’s hard to put a finger on the exact reason for this treatment of course, but you can get sneaking suspicions that this is the case.

    Either way, I think looking at root causes of this behaviour is important. Why might the queen bee syndrome exist? One of the key reasons is that the positions for women in senior management are so scarce, that often people feel like they need to stake out their territory. I don’t know what the stats are like in aid alone, but worldwide, the number of women in senior management positions (in the private sector at least) is abysmal:

    Simply encouraging more women to reach these positions will surely help this negative behaviour. Ironically, it is often women who are in the senior positions who need to help other women get up there as well.

    I remember a comment that one fairly junior lady I met working at a big NGO said to me, about the culture of competitiveness and exclusion that existed in this NGO. She said to me that for some reason, there seemed to be a culture in this organisation of “pulling the ladder up after you”. People weren’t willing to go out of their way to help. We all know the struggles that we face as entry level workers in aid and development, and I think it’s important that, regardless of gender, we avoid pulling the ladder up after ourselves.

  2. I’ve been blessed to have many incredible women leave the ladder down after themselves for me and so I do feel a responsibility to offer a hand up. Like most, I’ve also had my work thwarted at times by people obsessed with maintaining authority, but the “queen bees” that come to mind have all been men. In my experience, this had much more to do with overall well-being and emotional intelligence rather than gender. Just sayin’.

  3. Zehra says:

    Thank you both for your comments! @intldogooder am I reading too much into your comment that men don’t have the overall emotional well being and intelligence to cope? 🙂

    Weh: Agree that regardless of gender we shouldn’t be pulling up the ladder after us—I very loosely mentor a group of young women with Fiona who are all trying to get into the sector and it’s really hard for them to do so. The clients I talk to (at all levels) find it hard to build space for themselves to have a work life balance since they feel under pressure to go above and beyond not just to keep their jobs but to make a reputation for themselves as well. Finding and keeping jobs in the sector isn’t easy and I’ve heard stories of people being supportive but also thwarting ambitions. I have always maintained that HR needs to play a supportive role in this but again, this seems to be lacking where they are more interested not in a good work environment and capacity building their own employees but looking for cost efficient methods of just having a body there….

    On a personal note, I’ve had great managers (men and women) but have struggled with female colleagues at times. I’ve been made to feel that I am in competition with them somehow since we tend to be going for the same jobs or recognition. It was really bringing out the bad in me and so I took a step back from it and made a very active decision that I wasn’t going to be a part of that ‘rat race’ and it wasn’t about who sent the email first or could nit pick their way through a document just to make another person look bad. At the end of the day, I was able to do this because I had enough confidence that my work would speak for itself and to hell with anyone else. Easy to say but hard to do! It might have just been female colleagues since I worked in livelihoods and in my experience, it’s more women in that particular sector than men.

    I don’t know still if this is a gender thing or just a supportive environment thing. But like Jennifer, I do feel a responsibility to help other women along….if the private sector numbers that Weh has posted is any indication, we need the help!

  4. I’ve only ever had one experience with someone I’d refer to as a Queen Bee in the development sector (after eight years of working in it), and I would largely blame her behaviour on: a) personal insecurity/self esteem issues, and b) a seriously patriarchal working atmosphere. This was a long time ago now though, and since then I’ve had super supportive women in all of my working environments.

    I’m so mindful of how awful it was to experience that bullying behaviour, that I have gone out of my way throughout my career to assist and help anyone (regardless of gender, but it has been mostly women) in need of advice, support or an opinion on treading their paths in the aid and development sector.

    I truly think that the Queen Bee syndrome comes largely from a deep seated insecurity in oneself. A shift in mindset towards an ‘everybody benefits’ approach to someone’s success is crucial I think. Rather than, ‘you succeeding is showing me up, or threatening me’, it needs to be: ‘your success is my success, and mine is yours.’

    I also have Madeleine Albright’s quote from ages ago floating in the back of my mind: ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’.

    • Zehra says:

      Thanks for your sharing your experience Carly….and yep…I agree with you. I have always always always said to people I’ve managed (both women and men) that their success is my success. This shift in mindset is so very important. Having that kind of a supportive environment. The trick for me has been creating a supportive environment where people don’t feel threatened…esp staff starting out. I’ve had an experience where I really tried to support an emerging staff member (a woman) and she was so set on proving she knew what she was doing that she just would not listen to constructive feedback (especially not from me!) and ended up alienating many of her colleagues. She kept insisting that she knew what she was doing (fear of not having her contract renewed? cultural differences?) and as a result, the program actually suffered. My response was to go to men (she seemed more comfortable with listening to them) who were her senior and encourage them to mentor her and take her under their wing somehow. Tough environment but tried to do the best I could!

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