Sexism and the Queen Bee Effect

By Rina Goldenberg Lynch

I went for a walk with a friend the other day.  She is an engineer in a construction company and has struggled with her female boss for years.  Prompted by my questions, she relayed the following story:  her female manager – one of the most senior women in the company – has been described by many as a bully.  She finds ways to belittle other women, including my friend, and put down their achievements.  Instead of offering support, her manager has reduced my friend to (private) tears on countless occasions  contributed to a gradual erosion of her professional confidence and, ultimately, driven her to resign.

Before having decided to resign, my friend had addressed the situation with HR and has eventually been moved into a different reporting line, but she continues to hear similar accounts from other women – and the negative impact of the previous working relationship left such a bad taste in her mouth that she wasn’t even able to make a positive fresh start with a new, very supportive female line manager.

This, unfortunately, is not an isolated story.  I hear stories of female bosses who are unpleasant, denigrating and unhelpful.  Women who, instead of propping up and developing their female team members, put them down and block them from progression.  Women who, instead of changing the playing field to help other women succeed, actually block the provision of support, sometimes even denying something as fundamental as a formal women’s network.

So I have to ask the question:  assuming that we all start out as reasonable, likeable people, how does it come to this? Why are there senior women who would rather pull up the ladder behind them, so to speak, than help others achieve similar success?

Why do some women become unsupportive of other women at work?  The answer: decades of sexism in male-dominated work environments. 

Women like this are derogatorily referred to as Queen Bees.  The term describes women who have achieved success in traditionally male-dominated fields and distance themselves from other women in the workplace in order to succeed. These women tend to view or treat female subordinates more critically, and refuse to help other women progress in order to preserve their unique senior position.  These are the women for whom Madeleine Albright so famously predicted that ‘special place in hell’.


But we should not blame the women.  We should look at the system that nurtured them. 

Research has already shown that the pressure of behaving in a certain way once the most senior levels of an organisation have been reached, make it difficult for women to support other women.  While men are rewarded for supporting women’s initiatives, senior women are penalised for doing so and are socially discouraged from it.  It is also thought that women who distance themselves from other women are more likely to succeed in a male-dominated environment.  As a result, instead of helping other women, many female leaders do the opposite.  This behaviour has many negative consequences, not only on subordinate’s levels of confidence and morale, but also as role models to other women.  More junior women often cannot relate to this behaviour.  As a result, they cannot see themselves progress in the organisation, which leads to loss of talent in the pipeline.

Three things that organisations should do to wipe out Queen Bee behaviour:

When a company is made aware of Queen Bee behaviour, there are a number of things it can and should do:

  1. Identify the culture that promotes this type of behaviour and address it at the source.

A simple culture diagnostic at the right level of seniority will reveal the underlying sexism that is causing women to adapt more male characteristics.  As companies do not benefit from diversity of thought when female leaders assimilate into a male culture, it should be a priority to address these issues straight away.  A well-conducted diagnostic will not only highlight the cause but will also suggest solutions in how to address and change this cultural problem.

  1. Actively encourage senior female leaders to support other women.

It will be important to have senior female role models who are supportive and nurturing.  These women should get involved in mentoring other women as well as sponsoring staff networks and events.  Note that senior women should not be the only ones doing this; instead, they should be part of a healthy mix of senior leaders speaking with the same voice on this subject.

  1. Address the specific cases with coaching and other relevant interventions.

When a company promotes a person who bullies another, it sends the wrong message to everyone.  There should be measures in place to deal with people who put down others, regardless of whether that person is a man or a woman.  This kind of behaviour is unacceptable and counter-productive to the efforts of most companies.

Every time I hear a story like this, I’m astounded that things like this still take place.  But then I remind myself that sexism has not disappeared from our society yet, and so long as there is sexism in the workplace, we can expect women to develop this Queen Bee syndrome, undermining all other efforts that are being made to support and develop the female pipeline. One step forward, two steps back? I hope not.


If you would like to discuss how to identify systemic sexism within your leadership pipeline, talk to us about our Inclusion Diagnostic.