CAREER ADVANCEMENT / SEP. 26, 2014
version 2, draft 2

Does The Queen Bee Really Keep Other Women Down?

Despite an awful lot of attempts at achieving better equality in the workplace, there is little sign of actual progress being made. There is still a lot of evidence of salary differences between genders and discrimination is sadly still more common than we would all like.

There are numerous theories as to why this difference remains present in the workplace, but one of the more interesting is that some women actually contribute to it. The argument is that the style adopted by certain successful women harms the chances of others.

The argument goes that ’queen bees’, i.e. the women showing the kind of masculine traits that can often be seen at the top of the corporate tree, are part of the problem in generating equality in the workplace, the belief being that the masculine traits they have adopted to thrive, merely reinforces the negative stereotype of other women and hampers their career development.

Is the Queen Bee a bad thing?

Research by Dutch researcher Belle Derks casts doubt upon this hypothesis. Her team surveyed just under 100 women currently occupying senior positions in Dutch companies. They found that the ladies who could typically be defined as Queen Bee’s recalled suffering more prejudice in their own careers and could therefore not identify very well with those who had not experienced such difficulties.

This correlates with other work done into what’s known as social identity theory.  Social identity theory suggests that people develop a clear sense of membership and belonging to particular groups. It attempts to explain how such membership evolves, and how intergroup discrimination may operate.

Inside social identity theory

So, for instance, if a woman joins a sexist work environment they tend to have two choices. They can either join forces with the other women in the workplace, or they can go the other way and ’disown’ their female identity in order to align more with the environment they have joined.

The new findings are consistent with the idea that women who have a ’weaker’ and more feminine identity in the first place are more likely to go for the second option. Derks’ central point is that it is the sexist culture that forces women to make this choice and start on the path to becoming a Queen Bee.

Of course, with any study that involves recollections, it is subject to the vagaries of our memories and the biases therein, but Derks suggests that a typical Queen Bee would be less likely to draw on any discrimination in their past than the other way round.

If this theory is correct it could play a crucial role in improving work place equality because it suggests that merely placing females into the boardroom is not enough to change a rotten culture. Instead work needs to be done to change the culture from the bottom up, and once that culture has evolved into a more enlightened state, women will naturally rise to the boardroom.

Suffice to say, that kind of cultural change is much harder to achieve. Nevertheless, if it provides lasting change and a fairer workplace, then surely the effort is worthwhile.

 


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