The term we should probably stop calling female bosses

The existence of the Queen Bee—the ultra-competitive, hypercritical female boss who has zero interest in fostering the careers of fellow women, possibly even actively seeking to keep them down—has been much discussed. Is she real—a real, live enemy to female career advancement? Or is she any woman who reaches a position of power and, it’s assumed, must have stepped on more than a few toes along the way? In other words, is the Queen Bee yet another way to slap the “bitch” label on women who succeed?

Everybody has worked for a tough boss. Sometimes that boss is beloved because he or she pushes us to do things we thought we couldn’t do. Sometimes that boss is feared or even hated because he or she is unreasonable. Sometimes both. But is being a “tough boss” different for a woman than a man? Anecdotal, and scientific, research indicates yes.

In a recent Gallup poll, employees said they’d prefer to work for a man than a woman. That may be because toughness is perceived more negatively in women than in men. It’s a double standard that we clearly haven’t overcome yet. And it doesn’t help when we refer to women in power with pejorative terms like “Queen Bee.”

The term emerged in the 1970s by researchers looking at the prevalence of the women’s movement within the then-patriarchal workplace. I’ve written about it frequently as it relates to the modern day workplace, which, of course, remains quite patriarchal, despite considerable advances. These days, fast-rising females can be seen as a threat to the still-relatively few female power positions. Is it any surprise, then, that the relatively few women who rise to the top may want to maintain authority?

In the weeks after I first wrote about the topic of Queen Bees, I received hundreds of emails from women seeking to share their own experiences working for a so-called Queen Bee.

Sue wrote, “When I was hired, the final decision was made by a committee. The Queen Bee made it known she did not want me hired. From then on she made life miserable. She was an expert wordsmith and could make herself look good in written reports. The harassment went on for years.”

Another, Kristin, wrote, “It’s about time someone blows the whistle on women bosses who deliberately treat female subordinates in a demoralizing manner. I worked for a Queen Bee who in management meetings called me “pumpkin,” and ordered me to take meeting notes. I was horrified to learn that she believed the “A” in my MBA meant ‘Administrative Assistant.’”

Of course, not everyone wrote in to corroborate: As one anonymous reader recounted, “The relationships I’ve had with my female coworkers and managers have been one of the highlights in my professional experience. One of my clinical instructors was a taskmaster. She cracked the whip, and if we didn’t move fast enough, she wouldn’t hesitate to chew us out in front of each other or even in front of the patients. However, it was clear that her intention was to toughen us up and force us to think quickly. It’s true that I went home crying after a few shifts because of her brusque manner, but I knew that she was teaching me to be a competent nurse.”

While every boss is different, it seems that gender perception may play a big role in how we think of our superiors. Even though the burden appears to fall on women, there is some encouraging news. Women-led businesses may perform better. There are studies that point to companies with high percentages of female leaders having superior returns, including an August report by HR consulting firm DDI, which found that the top 20 percent of financially successful companies have 27 percent female leaders, while the bottom 20 percent have 19 percent female leaders.

Of course, that doesn’t mean people are happy. But do they need to be? After all, as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball” and opinion is united that the same holds true in the workplace. This is where the Catch-22 of female leadership must also be acknowledged. Nurturing female bosses can be seen as “soft”—especially by men— but firm female bosses are seen as “bossy” and “Queen Bees.”

The backlash over Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is an indication of how far we are from coming to terms with female leadership. Just look at how Sandberg was described by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times: “She has a grandiose plan to become the PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots. . .”

I can’t help but wonder, after all, in all that’s been written about male titans of industry, how many times people have mentioned their choice of shoes.

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