Queen Bees are the consequence not the cause of sexist work-places

Queen Bee is a term used in business psychology to refer to women in senior positions who boast about their own masculine attributes, whilst derogating their female subordinates and endorsing sexist stereotypes. According to articles in the popular press, the presence of Queen Bees is as much a cause of gender inequality at work as is the sexism shown by men. A new article by Belle Derks and her colleagues challenges this claim, arguing instead that sexist work-places are a breeding ground for Queen Bees - that the latter are a consequence, not a cause, of sexism at work.

Derks team surveyed 94 women holding senior positions in several Dutch organisations (in the Netherlands, women make up only 7 per cent of the boards of the largest 100 companies and on average earn 6.5 per cent lower pay than men). The central finding was that those women who showed all the hall-marks of a Queen Bee tended to recall having suffered more sexism and prejudice in their own careers and, moreover, tended to report feeling less identification with other women when they started their careers.

According to Derks and her colleagues, when women join a sexist work-place, they have two options - they can either bolster their ties to other women or they can distance themselves from their feminine identity. The new findings are consistent with the idea that women who have a weaker feminine identity in the first place are more likely to go for the second option. Derks' central point is that it's the sexist culture that forces women to make this choice and start on the path to becoming a Queen Bee.

As with so much psychological research, this study suffers from the serious weakness of being cross-sectional in design. This means that rather than a sexist culture causing women to reject their feminine identity and become a Queen Bee, the effect could work backwards such that being a Queen Bee somehow makes you more likely to recall being the victim of sexism. However, the researchers argue this is unlikely - if anything they think established Queen Bees would be likely to downplay the presence of gender discrimination.

The new results have important implications for organisations seeking to reduce sexism. Simply appointing a few token female senior managers in a sexist culture is likely to backfire as this will dispose them to becoming Queen Bees, thus worsening the situation for their female subordinates. Instead greater emphasis should be placed on reducing sexist beliefs and practices in the organisation. 'In companies that ensure that women can achieve career success without having to forgo their gender identification,' the researchers said, 'women in senior positions are more likely to become inspiring role models who have positive attitudes about the potential of their female subordinates.'
Derks B, Ellemers N, van Laar C, and de Groot K (2010). Do sexist organizational cultures create the Queen Bee? The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society PMID: 20964948
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