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by Cathy Vandewater | June 24, 2011


A new study at Leiden University in the Netherlands suggests that "difficult, male-dominated" environments may be the source of "Queen Bee" female bosses who distance themselves from other women.

An online questionnaire taken by 63 senior women in law enforcement asked the participants to rate how important their gender was at work, and how well they identified with other women in their field, and then write about either a negative encounter with gender biases at work, or a time when they felt their gender was a non-issue.

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The results: those who identified with other women at the workplace were more likely to express a desire to help other women facing gender biases. Those who considered themselves to be "different" from other women or have a "masculine" style of leadership were less likely to want to give a leg up to other members of their group—and much more likely to match the "queen bee personality" profile.

Though it's possible that queen bees' tenacity gets them ahead and into leadership roles, it's also important to look at a system where women feel they have to act against type to get ahead. "Masculine" attributes are perceived to be well-liked by male higher ups, so it seems women are using each other as foils rather than as partners in an attempt to stand out.

Pop culture, unfortunately, perpetuates that mentality. Working Girl, The Devil Wears Prada, Disclosure—they all showcase ruthless women as the only professionally successful ones. These characters schmooze, flirt, and spar with men while seamlessly putting down, cheating, and shoving other women out of the way. Then there are films like Bad Teacher (in which glamorous but evil Cameron Diaz sleeps and manipulates her way to job security) that are not only devoid of positive female role models, they reinforce the stereotype that attractive successful women are the worst villains, always using sex and manipulation, never to be trusted.

Ladies—there has to be a better way. But some experts are claiming it's out of our hands until the workplace becomes more gender blind. Says Belle Derks, a scientist on the study, " "If you simply put women at higher positions without doing anything about gender bias in the organization, these women will be forced to distance themselves from the group."

She believes that in sink or swim environments, everybody puts themselves first—but it's not a flattering look on women, who have been socialized to play nice. The result is either passive aggressive behavior (where women put a nice face on competitiveness, a la Sigourney Weaver) or straightforward aggressiveness (Meryl Streep) which women especially despise as a betrayal to the group. vBut is it, really? Should women be expected to be "loyal to the group" in the first place?

"If you set women up this way, so they have to choose between their opportunities and the opportunities of the group, some women will choose themselves," says Derks. "Why should you choose your group? Men don't have to."

Point taken.

--Cathy Vandewater,


Filed Under: Workplace Issues