The Leiden University in the Netherlands asked 63 senior female employees at police departments in three Dutch cities to take an online questionnaire designed to gauge how important their gender identity was at work and whether or not they felt they identified with other women in the police force:
Half of the participants were then asked to write about a situation in which they either believed that being a woman was detrimental to them at work, were discriminated against or heard other people talking negatively about women. The remaining participants wrote about a time when their gender was no issue at all and they were valued for their personal abilities.
All of the women were then asked about their leadership style, whether they thought they were different from other female employees, and whether they felt that gender bias was an issue.
The researchers noted that the women's answers to these questions depended on the strength of their gender identity at work. The participants who wrote about their gender bias experiences answered the final survey like queen bees — but only if they had started out by saying that they identified weakly with other women at work. These queen bees indicated that they had a masculine leadership style, were very different from other women and that gender bias wasn't a problem.
So it would seem that one of the final scenes in Mean Girls may hold true for senior professional women as well as teen girls in that everyone seems to silently agree that there is a problem with gender bias, yet many of them are under the impression that it's a jungle out there and fear it may be a case of "every woman for herself."
The less-bad news is that there is also a flip side to the results of the study:
The women who said they strongly identified with other women at work showed the opposite response; after writing about gender bias, they said they were motivated to mentor other women.
Finding that only certain women engage in this queen bee behavior and only after they've been primed to think about gender bias suggests that organizations can't simply place women in top positions and expect them to assist other women as they rise through the ranks, according to the researchers.
"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," study author Belle Derks said in a statement.
"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," Derks said.
This raises an excellent point.
Female employees may actually feel quite motivated to work together for the greater good, but if they also feel that they're competing to become one of the few powerful women in their office, the Team Ladies mentality may prove to be quite difficult. Even if the workplace in question has allowed a few women to "rise through the ranks," it's not enough. If gender bias is still present, it's to the detriment of the larger staff. A queen bee is, by definition, not a team player.
That said, it's hard to believe the idea that women in these gender-biased workplaces are putting their own success above that of their female co-workers. Just because an office is gender-biased doesn't mean a woman's ambition is as well.
Could the "queen bee" effect be less about other women, and more about the ruthless "every man/woman for him/herself" mentality that pervades so many workplaces?
Allow me to be painfully optimistic for a moment: I suspect (hope?) that many women find it difficult to achieve their own personal goals within a gender-biased environment, and perhaps some of those women believe that maybe, just maybe, they have a better chance of success if they climb the ladder alone.
And then maybe, just maybe, they'll have the opportunity to help a few others up once they reach the top.
'Queen Bee' Bosses Often Victims of Sexist Workplace [LiveScience]