Queen bees in the workplace want to keep all the honey for themselves

Queen bees of the human kind are undoing the gains of gender equality in the workplace.

The queen bee syndrome is one in which a woman in a position of authority views or treats subordinates more critically if they are women and favours men when it comes to promotion, according to the academic literature.

In nature the queen bee is the only queen in her colony: she is fed royal jelly and is the largest bee in the colony, with the most graceful body. Contrary to nature, the human queen bee is anything but graceful — she is rude, arrogant and patronising.

At a time when we should be seeing more women enabling and empowering each other, there is a rise in the number of queen bees in many corporations. This is concomitant with more women assuming executive positions than before.

The queen bee phenomenon has been studied since the 1970s. In a 2008 study by University of Toronto sociologists Scott Schieman and Taralyn McMullen, the authors posited that queen bee syndrome could be why women find it more stressful to work for female managers. No difference was found in stress levels for male workers in this situation.

Amid challenges working women face, including entering the workplace, overcoming socially constructed norms and gaining parity at work, they continue to experience the lethal sting of a queen bee who succeeded in her career, but refuses to help other women do the same.

For centuries, women have faced the constant subjugation by men in terms of policies, procedures, laws, harassment, power struggles and gender stereotyping. The boys’ networks control all the power mandates that prescribe practice and behaviour. When women report injustices and policy contraventions, the decision-making panels often comprise men, who stand in solidarity to uphold decisions that discredit the woman in question.

The only individuals who understand the innate struggle and challenges women face are women themselves. However, this narrative does not translate into the positive, happy ending that it should.

In South African labour spaces, dialogue about the queen bee has begun but has not yet gained adequate momentum. Very limited academic research using South African examples is available.

Although mostly unfamiliar in a local context, queen bee was a term coined internationally in the 1970s. A queen bee may display some positive feminine leadership values, but she consciously chooses to impede the development of other women.

Modus operandi

The queen bee recognises her struggles towards success as a lonely journey. The widespread belief is that women have to emulate men to maintain success. Women have to portray male characteristics and personify men by exhibiting brash, harsh and tough behaviour to gain some measure of respect from their male counterparts.

A queen bee gains support from the “male tribe” of her organisation if she is seen as part of their group. What female leaders fail to take cognisance of is the fact that their male colleagues will “allow” them to climb only up to a certain point; thus, the glass ceiling continues to prevail.

When support, development, mentorship or advice is sought from the queen bee, other women will be met with aggression and the clear, condescending tone of the power lines being drawn.

It is important for women to know and understand the different types of women who impede their advancement and success, and act strategically with this knowledge in mind.

There are different types of women who will obstruct: those who will agree to be your mentor but exploit you and those who show you kindness but stand firm with the boys’ network when decisions about development are made. It is critical to discern the extent your fellow sisters will pull you down.

The queen bee will offer no support to developing women. The princess bee will support other women as long as they do not violate her territory. Hence, she will mentor others only as long as they stay separate from her domain. The phantom bee will not facilitate finding another woman for a job vacancy — men are then allocated the job and fewer women are afforded access to new jobs. Then there is the Cinderella complex — the ugly stepsisters work together to undermine the success of one sister.

There is, however, a spark of light within the darkness. The women who support, encourage and mentor other women far outnumber the queen bees. These women need to continue their stellar work.

When faced with the double-edged sword in positions of power, women need to be steadfast in their recognition of challenges that the sisterhood faces and not surrender their soul to the boys’ network.

They should not be hypnotised by power and lose sight of logic and sisterhood. Remember the journey; remember the struggle when more than 20 000 women, crying “we’ve had enough” marched to the Union Buildings on August 9 1956 to protest against the apartheid pass laws, regarded one of the largest demonstrations of the time.

Together we can accomplish and overcome. Be a mentor and give courage and support to as many women as possible. If you encounter the queen bee and members of her royal court, make the choice not to be dampened by their crude and cold demeanours.

Dr Aradhana Ramnund-Mansingh is an academic at Mancosa, and a former human resources executive. She is currently conducting research on the queen bee syndrome in South Africa. If you would like to share your experiences or participate in an interview, please contact her at [email protected]. Confidentiality is guaranteed.


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Aradhana Ramnund-Mansingh
Dr Aradhana Ramnund-Mansingh is an academic at Mancosa, and a former human resources executive. She is currently conducting research on the queen bee syndrome in South Africa.
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