Workplace Politics: Why Do Queen Bee Executives Sting?

Throughout most of history, women have been told, in both open and unspoken ways, that they were important primarily for performing the roles defined for them by males: conceiving and bearing children, keeping the household, and catering to the needs and desires of their men. Many women have defied these stereotypes and are challenging patriarchal stereotypes, shattering glass ceilings across the world.

As women continue to defy gender biases, attention has increasingly focused on how women are handling the success associated with hard-won positions of leadership. In some cases, women in positions of power have been characterized negatively. “Bitch,” “queen bee,” “bully in a pant suit,” and “ball buster” are just a few of the derogatory names often associated with women who use their power and position to oppress others. As often as not, other women are on the receiving end of this dominating behavior.

Often called same-sex gender bias, this behavior toward female colleagues by women in positions of power has fostered criticism at the same time that similar actions by male leaders are applauded and even honored. Men who are hyper-competitive, even to the point of employing cut-throat, back stabbing tactics, may often be perceived as “bold,” “assertive,” and “gutsy,” while women who do the same things frequently receive the more negative labels referenced earlier.

In her 2013 article, The Tyranny of the Queen Bee, organizational psychologist Peggy Drexler describes the queen bee in much the same terms as high school “mean girls” who engage in psychological terror. “Far from nurturing the growth of younger female talent, they push aside possible competitors by chipping away at their self-confidence or undermining their professional standing. It is a trend thick with irony: The very women who have complained for decades about unequal treatment now perpetuate many of the same problems by turning on their own…” (Drexler 2013). Are queen bees, in fact, same-sex bullies?

Jill Abramson
Jill Abramson

Some have suggested that even though women are shattering glass ceilings, they are doing so in a man’s world. As a result, they are forced to behave like men. Is it naïve to assert that the whole purpose of women shattering glass ceilings is to show that women can be effective in any setting while simultaneously being 100 percent woman? In the classic musical My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins sings about his frustration that women can’t be more like men. But why should any woman have to behave like a man?

During my career, I have personally felt the sting of such a queen bee, causing me to reflect on the many stories I’ve heard in the context of my own personal experience. All too often, when the queen bee is not actively undermining her employees or putting them down publicly, she’s having fits of rage—shouting and dictating rather than collaborating.

I clearly remember one planning meeting when our team, led by a queen bee executive, met with a potential vendor during a business lunch outside of the office. We were discussing a planned transition when it dawned on me that the vendor was not properly vetted. This caused several people on our team to probe further. Out of nowhere, the leader screamed out my name and told me to be quiet. The screech was so loud that the waiter who was refilling our glasses at the table paused, and sudden silence filled the room—you could have heard a pin drop. The leader then asserted that this transition had to happen; it was “her neck and her license”—and at the end of the day, her decision.

I was totally shocked at such behavior in a public place, especially in front of potential vendors and colleagues. Even as I write this, I can feel my blood boiling all over again. I have never been so embarrassed in public by anyone—male or female.

After the meeting, the queen bee executive summoned me to her office and asked why I could not talk to her about my concerns. She characterized this as “managing up” and reminded me that I often told employees to practice the art of managing up as a way to help resolve issues with their superiors. I replied that it appeared to me that there was no managing her, since she rarely listened to anything of value presented by her subordinates. She then proceeded to tell me that I needed to take male enhancement drugs in order to gain better control of my emotions, since I had showed emotion at the lunch meeting. I wondered how much of her comment involved projection of her outburst onto me. I decided that if this “queen bee” were taking the male enhancement drugs she recommended, apparently they were not effective.

While my experience may represent an isolated incident, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, “Many women are afraid to confront their bullying bosses and suffer in silence. They should not have to risk clinical depression or debilitating anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder as experienced by 30 percent of women. You shouldn’t have a war wound in the workplace…” (Namie 2009).

This issue raises several related questions: Are “queen bees” receiving the support they need, such as mentoring and coaching to help them successfully navigate the challenges presented by their positions? Are there enough women mentors in leadership positions to support emerging female leaders and perhaps prevent them from becoming queen bee types? Are women in leadership somehow conditioned to believe that they must “behave like men” by being hyper-competitive, insensitive, aggressive, or even by taking male enhancement drugs to make them less feminine? What about Hollywood’s role in glamorizing “queen bees”? In 2006, The Devil Wears Pradagenerated discussion and even sparked some controversy about the way the character Miranda Priestly, played by actress Meryl Streep, was portrayed. Whether it was a case of life imitating art or vice versa, many felt the movie glamorized female bullies while downplaying some of the real issues faced by women in positions of influence: balancing and integrating work and family, and how working outside the home can strain both work relationships as well as relationships with loved ones.

As I witness incidents and hear others relate situations like the one described above, I am disappointed to know that some women, especially those in positions of power, are not effectively using their platforms to help advance, reach, teach, and mentor other women. Women still face numerous challenges while climbing the corporate ladder in their quest to shatter glass ceilings in corporate America: equal pay, childcare, work-life balance, and lack of mentoring opportunities to name a few. Sexism and other -isms persist as barriers to women in corporate America. Women, especially those in leadership positions, should be using their platforms to help other women in their quest to overcome and tear down the obstacles and barriers still barring women from equal opportunities in business and industry. Intimidation and oppression of women should be stamped out—and it certainly should not occur at the hands of other women.

Dawn Nicole Martin