'Queen Bee' Bosses Often Victims of Sexist Workplace

Some female bosses get a bad rap for their "queen bee" behaviors, including the cold shoulder they give to other women in the office. But new research suggests we should blame the sexist work environment, not the bosses themselves, for the behavior.

To determine whether queen bee behavior is actually a response to a difficult, male-dominated environment, researchers at the Leiden University in the Netherlands gave an online questionnaire to 63 senior women working at police departments in three Dutch cities. First, all of the women were asked questions was about how important their gender identity was at work, including how much 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. [5 Myths About Girls, Math and Science]

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.

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.

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

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Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.