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Queen Bee syndrome’: the myth that keeps working women in their little box

Rejoice, fellow drones! Ding, dong! The Queen Bee is dead! A survey by Columbia Business School in New York of 1,500 companies over a 20-year period suggests that female in-fighting is a myth. And there is no such thing as “Queen Bee syndrome”, whereby successful women scheme and connive to keep all the corporate honey for themselves. The results of the survey will be presented at a conference of leading British girls’ schools this week.

The theory of women competing for an alpha female’s attention (and either being screwed over by her or, alternatively, getting their revenge on her) has been popularised for years by films including Grease, Heathers, Clueless, Mean Girls and The Devil Wears Prada. It has come to mean so much more than women competing at work. It has come to symbolise something important about female identity, female friendships and girl gangs in all sorts of different environments.

Worst of all, it has been accepted as some kind of truism: that given half a chance, women will be bitches – and in any given group there will be one bitch who is the biggest bitch of all. This makes for great drama. It is not so fun in real life. It’s also a dangerous mindset which keeps women in their little box, afraid to trust others and constantly on the look-out for someone more “senior” who is going to knife them in the back.

Instead, this survey suggests, women are held back not by each other but by men who don’t want them in the boardroom. “Women face an implicit quota, whereby firms seek to maintain a small number of women on their top management team, usually only one.” This is conspiracy theory time. Have women been blaming and fighting each other while ignoring what’s really holding them back? Who is the real enemy: us or them?

None of this thinking is useful and it feels horribly outdated. The original “Queen Bee” myth stemmed from a 1973 study which suggested that women in key positions in organisations not only failed to support other women but actively worked to keep their rivals out. Another study from around the same time defined a queen bee as “one who has succeeded in her career but refuses to help other women do the same”. This gave rise to an unofficial “Lift as You Climb” counter-movement which eventually found its voice in the famous Madeleine Albright quote: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

The problem with all this – and I’m really not sure the new survey helps – is that it encourages the sort of polarised black-and-white thinking that has ensured feminism has made far fewer strides over the past six decades than it should have done. Do any of us really behave “like a man” or “like a woman” at work in the 21st century? Yes, in movies – which are fictional! – we encounter people like Rizzo (Stockard Channing in Grease) or Regina (Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls). Yes, in the workplace these kinds of toxic people might exist from time to time. But in real life, nasty, narcissistic people are just as likely to be men as women. Similarly, surely gender is not ever going to predict the person most likely to help you out with good career advice.

If this survey means a handful of paranoid women will be more open-minded about trusting others, then great. But if it means the identification of a new enemy – “The evil men-bees won’t let us in the hive!” – then we might as well go back to 1973.


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