Recently I took a certificate course titled “Women in Leadership.” This course opened my eyes to many crucial topics that affect women this day and age. As expected, it touched upon gender bias and stereotypes in the workplace and gave guidance on how to overcome the imbalance present in most work environments. This course gave me tools needed for daily use in positions of leadership. However, what this course did not do was discuss what happens when some of the sexism you experience comes from other high achieving women.
There is no denying that the feminist movement has made progress and advancements that our ancestors would be proud of. However, from time to time, we encounter someone suffering from the “Queen Bee Syndrome.”
The term, one that most of us are very familiar with, was coined in 1973.1 It refers to special group of women who often succeed in a male-dominated environment. Once these women obtain high status or a leadership role, they are likely to endorse gender stereotypes and keep the other “worker bees” in check. They see other women as competition and as such develop negative feelings towards them and don’t become supportive of their female subordinates.
According to Sheryl Sandberg in her book “Lean In,” the Queen Bee phenomenon is not only a cause, but also a consequence of gender bias and discrimination. It can be argued that Queen Bee behavior can be an attempt at self-preservation, but also due to internalizing the perceived low status of women.2
Early in my post-residency, military career our female medical director was preparing to deploy to Kuwait. A male colleague, two years my junior and just out of residency was named acting medical director by her. I asked about the position and why it was not offered or even discussed with me as the most senior active duty person in the department. I was told I would be better off without the position since my hands were already full with two small children at home. She said “you don’t really want the position, do you?”
This highlights the Queen Bee belief that by not promoting other women, they themselves gain acceptance in the male dominated environment. This also highlights the second-generation gender bias, in which cultural and gender assumptions, organizational structure, practices and patterns often put women at a disadvantage. Second-generation gender bias includes the double bind we often face, and gendered work and career paths.3 Often, the negative effects these actions can have on others eludes the Queen Bee.
There is no doubt women have their own biases. For example, we expect females to be nicer to us, more helpful and more empathetic. We tend to feel betrayed when they don’t exhibit those traits. However, Queen Bees and their actions can demoralize a department. The lack of a supportive environment can add to the emotional exhaustion that is already so widely spread in today’s emergency medicine culture. A sense of defeat may be felt when even your own kind does not seem to understand what it is like. Further, passive-aggressive behavior may lead to toxic leadership, low morale and ultimately a lack of harmony that may be irreversible.
Other negative effects of the Queen Bee Syndrome may be decreased organizational functionality and job satisfaction. Increased individual pain, feelings of loneliness and feelings of constant judgement. Being a female emergency physician is already a tough job, let’s not make it harder on ourselves. Let us all be aware of what this phenomenon can do to us and let us STOP IT.
To the Queen Bee: Let us focus on shared goals and come together to fight the unfair system. There is no need to sabotage each other and perpetrate sexism. Separating yourself from your own kind in a male dominated environment will not make you more valuable or desirable. Please try to be warm and understanding to your female colleagues. Offer us the same opportunities you would our male colleagues. What is really motivating you to be the Queen Bee? Insecurities? Self-preservation? Internal misogyny? We are not competition, understand that. We must support our own cause and help bridge the gender disparity. Every day we don’t support each other, is another day we allow others to call us neurotic and genetically inferior like Google manifesto dude.
Let us have the courage to stand up for each other and provide a supporting environment for each other in the emergency department.
- Belau FD, DeVaro J. New Evidence on Gender Differences in Promotion Rates: An Empirical Analysis of a Sample of New Hires. Cornell University IRL School 2007 . Accessed on August 8,2017.
- Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Deckle Edge, 2013.
- Ibarra H, Ely RJ, Kolb DM. Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers. Harvard Business Review 2013. Accessed on August 12, 2017.