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New Study Chips Away At Tired ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’ Stereotype

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Apr 20, 2018

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Perhaps you’ve heard of the Queen Bee syndrome — the idea that women in leadership roles will often treat their female subordinates more critically or reject them entirely has been widely circulated in the media. Margaret Thatcher is the most commonly cited real-life example, because she barely had any other women on her cabinet.

The Queen Bee syndrome has been fairly controversial with researchers since the term was first coined at the University of Michigan in 1973. While some studies have supported the theory, other research has panned it as outright sexism. The latest study, which looked at female leadership behavior in organizations across Brazil, suggests that the Queen Bee syndrome may be a myth, after all.

The study found that female leaders were more likely to act benevolently toward subordinate women, choosing them over men to fill positions at high managerial levels. In these promotions, they also reduced pay inequality relative to men in similar roles.

“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,” said lead author Paulo Arvate, a professor of economics and strategy at the São Paulo Business School. “These studies have reinforced the stereotype that women do not make good leaders.”

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, wrote a 2016 New York Times op-ed about the myth of the “catty woman,” in which she noted that women aren’t any meaner to each other than men are to one another. “Women are just expected to be nicer,” she wrote. “When women violate those stereotypes, we judge them harshly.”

In fact, a just-published study measured the differences in cooperation and punishment behavior in men and women, finding that men are much more willing to punish in the workplace than women. Men were also found to be less generous and less cooperative than their female counterparts.

There are indications that such behavior in men is what causes women in leadership positions to distance themselves from junior women. An Atlantic piece published shortly after Sandberg’s op-ed suggested that women leaders who behave this way are trying to overcome gender barriers in the workplace by setting themselves apart from other women. A 2016 paper published in The Leadership Quarterly proposed the same theory.

These lines of thought suggest that even if a portion of women leaders, however small, do behave in a Queen Bee manner, they may not be discriminating so much as acting as the result of discrimination. Additionally, women seem to be judged on a harsher playing field than men — there is no male equivalent of the “Queen Bee” term, although enough studies have shown that men display more aggression in the workplace as they rise up the ranks. There are disproportionate expectations on women to be nicer — for example, The Wall Street Journal, in an article describing the Queen Bee syndrome, referred to “professional sisterhood.”

At the very least, the Brazilian study shows that Queen Bees are not as common as behavioral scientists once thought. How workplaces treat women differs from country to country, so it would be interesting to see if the study would have yielded different results had it been conducted across Indian organizations.

However, it seems fair to conclude that when women leaders don’t support other women, they’re not necessarily ‘bad’ in an objective sense — especially when you look at how men behave in the workplace. So, for now, the only Queen Bee we recognize is the one who just renamed Coachella.

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Written By Urvija Banerji

Urvija Banerji is the Features Editor at The Swaddle, and has previously written for Rolling Stone India and Atlas Obscura. When she’s not writing, she can be found in her kitchen, painting, cooking, picking fights online, and consuming large amounts of coffee (often concurrently).

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