I had my newly minted Ph.D. I had a great job in a place where the opportunity seemed unlimited. There was even a woman in a senior position who seemed to take a special interest in me. I thought she would be the perfect mentor.
But I started to feel something was wrong. She would dismiss my ideas – sometimes in mid sentence. She didn’t invite me to meetings. I was clearly not a member of the “after work club”. My questions drew vague and unhelpful answers, if she answered them at all.
As I played it over in my mind – often staring at the ceiling long after I should have been asleep – I knew that others felt quite differently about me. All the other signals were positive. I only had one problem. But it was a big one; sitting right smack in the path of my hopes to rise in the organization.
I got past it. I moved on. But I will never forget the confusion, frustration and unrelenting sense of fear in knowing that this accomplished woman – whom I really admired – just didn’t like me, and having no idea why.
It wasn’t until later in my career that I realized: I had met the queen bee. The term comes from the “Queen Bee Syndrome”, first used in a study of promotion rates in the 1970s. In nature, the queen’s stinger is there for one reason: to dispatch another potential queen who has strayed into the hive. In an organization, she is a woman who uses her authority over potential female rivals in the same way. Having fought her way to the top, she’ll do what it takes to defend her position from would-be female competition.
Some survey evidence says she is a myth, a symptom of an organizational immune response to a fundamental shift in power. Other evidence indicates she is very real.
Even with the perspective of my own experience, and the statistical indications offered by employee surveys, I still have to wonder. Where is the line between the tough boss and the bully?
I did my own research and spoke to women I knew who had risen through various organizations, and asked their opinions. Is the queen bee real or fiction? And if she is real, how do you tell her from the “my way or the highway” boss who is accepted – even revered – when he happens to be male?
My findings: the queen bee lives. And she differs from the tough boss because she makes it personal. She is the professional embodiment of the high school “mean girl” – able to exploit female vulnerabilities that men may not see, using tactics — a sarcastic aside or a roll of the eyes — that their male counterparts might never notice. She is practiced at surgical exclusion from the group. She can hurt careers, and even affect health. But she leaves no fingerprints.
One woman who had fought her way up the ranks of a male dominated accounting firm told me: “Of course, queen bees exist. I know that because I was one. Or maybe a better way to put it is, I’m in recovery. I would look at a female on the way up, and I would go straight to threat assessment. Over time, you get more secure. There are more opportunities. You get beyond thinking that if you mentor someone, they might come back to bite you. You gain the confidence it takes to surround yourself with the best people. Some female leaders don’t have that confidence, because we’re still relatively new at this.”
Another woman executive said it’s an illusion that women, by definition, will usher in a kinder, gentler age of management. Some women executives, she believes, are mean to other women simply because they are not particularly nice people. As more women take more supervisory roles, it’s going to happen more often. Especially in more Darwinian cultures, top women didn’t get where they are by bringing donuts in the morning.
What do you do when you find yourself in the queen bee’s sights?
My approach was to try harder and do whatever it takes to win her over. I was spectacularly unsuccessful. Since then, most of what I’ve learned falls on one side or the other of a binary approach to dealing with bullies: confront them because that is what they fear; don’t confront them because that is what they want. That advice is situational in the workplace as it is in the middle school cafeteria.
Unfortunately it’s very likely the bully owns the high ground. She’s been there longer, her title is bigger, she’s more important to the organization and she’s better at attacking you than you will be defending yourself. If you try to discuss your concerns she’ll probably say she has no idea what you’re talking about, and things will get worse. Going to HR is useless, there is a smoking gun e-mail, or a line of people complaining about the same thing.
The only thing you can really control is your job. Do it the very best you can. Above all, be brutally honest with yourself. Is she picking on you because you’re too good at what you do? Or is it because you’re not good enough? If you’re really good, the odds are in your favor.
Bad bosses are a fact of life. They always will be. It might be someplace else, but if talent and drive takes you to a position of authority. When you’re there — and you see a female bully in your organization — you’ll have the title and the clout to stop it. That is the best revenge.
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