To (queen) bee or not to bee? by Prof. Charlene Gerber and Prof. Anton Schlechter

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Politics at work in order to gain power and status is as old as mankind. In this regard, sexist behaviour in the workplace is most often blamed on men. However, several studies have found that successful women often play a negative role in the advancement of female subordinates. Based on empirical research, several authors have concluded that women in positions of power are just as guilty as men of standing in the way of the career advancement of other women[1]. These women are often referred to as ‘queen bees.’

The first reference in management literature to the construct Queen Bee Syndrome (QBS) dates back to 1973[2]. Since then, evidence of this phenomenon has been found in several studies[3]. QBS refers to women in leadership positions who wish to protect their unique position and will therefore not allow other women to achieve equal career success[4]. Queen bees are perceived to be less supportive of the advancement of other women; express more negative perceptions of women, for example, that women are less committed to their careers; and are less supportive of equal opportunity programmes meant to assist women as they themselves advance in organisations[5].

Moreover, queen bees are said to be meaner, more critical, and less tolerant of their female co-workers, simply because these co-workers are women[6]. In support of these definitions of QBS, researchers also suggest that women who report to female managers often have significantly higher stress levels, compared to women who report to male managers[7].

Anecdotal accounts and research evidence suggest that, in the workplace, men often display sexist, discriminatory, and oppressive behaviours. However, the research evidence referred to above is equally persuasive, i.e. that QBS exists in organisations, and that there are many accounts of women who are guilty of sexism in the workplace[8].

It would seem that, according to popular press articles and academic literature, both genders are to blame for the continued discrimination and oppression of women in the workplace. Some researchers even suggest that, within the context of gender-based discrimination in the workplace, women might be their own worst enemies[9]. This argument is used by several authors to explain, and even legitimise, the widespread under-representation of women in management and leadership positions[10]

As suggested above, there is compelling support for the notion that QBS exists, which explains the widespread belief that many women in managerial positions are queen bees. Moreover, there is a belief that women, of their own volition, choose to be queen bees. The resulting binary classification of women in management as either good (i.e. women who are actively involved in supporting other women) or bad (i.e. women who have achieved a management position by turning on other women) neglects to acknowledge within-group variation amongst different female managers, as well as alternative explanations for this behaviour, and, as a result, stereotyping is rife[11]

Any use of stereotypes, generalisation, and oversimplification of complex human behaviour, however, runs the risk of creating absolutes in people’s minds, as seems to be the case here. In support of this thinking, several authors have argued that, while QBS is prevalent, it may not be as prevalent as it is presumed to be – particularly the absolute belief that ‘all women are like that.’ Moreover, setting oneself apart from other women has proven to be a successful strategy to improve one’s career prospects, and may be seen by some women as a legitimate manner to get ahead. This strategy to get ahead is, however, no different to what is generally acceptable behaviour for men in the workplace. Rather, QBS has provided a scapegoat for sexism in the workplace, one that men who are sexist and often responsible for gender discrimination in the workplace are quick to cite in order to shift the blame.

More recently though, an alternative view has begun to emerge, suggesting that, while QBS does exist as a form of female sexism in the workplace, it is the result of gender bias within the workplace that, in turn, produces gender disparities in career outcomes. In other words, it is argued that QBS, as the result of the social context, is both a cause and a consequence of gender discrimination in the workplace[12]. In support of this thinking, it has been found that women who find themselves in workplaces where they experience high levels of gender discrimination are more likely to perpetuate the same gender stereotypes when they deal with other women. Research evidence for an alternative understanding of social context as a cause of QBS represents a fundamental shift in thinking and places a fork in the road. It instils a sense of doubt, bringing all the previously established research on QBS into question, and so opens the door for further studies to attempt to, once again, find conceptual and theoretical clarity regarding this phenomenon.

Another consideration in understanding the phenomenon is that an extraneous variable (e.g., the stereotype or generalisation that all women in management positions are queen bees) could confound the findings by spuriously creating a correlation with the dependent variable (e.g., widespread perceived queen bee behaviour in all women in managerial positions). Simply put, if participants in a study perceive a relationship between the variables because the question infers it, their perception instantly, to some extent, becomes biased in favour of the proposed relationship – even when it was never there in the first place. Unless researchers mitigate and account for confounding variables, the outcomes of such research could be skewed

Following the reasoning above, conducting research into QBS represents a conundrum. As argued, on the one hand, there is evidence that QBS is a cause of gender discrimination – women discriminating against other women. On the other hand, there is evidence that QBS is a consequence of a social context where women are being discriminated against by men. Asking women in a workplace about their beliefs, attitudes towards, or perceptions of QBS may therefore elicit any one of the two scenarios described above, and perhaps even a combination of the two. This results in a situation where several possible confounding biases could negatively affect the existence and findings of QBS research. As a result, researchers in the field of QBS need to utilise approaches that mitigate confounding biases. This has not been done to date in QBS studies.

The aim of the present study was, therefore, to investigate the notion that all women in managerial positions display queen bee behaviour of their own volition, using an approach that mitigates confounding bias. It was hoped that the findings of the study would provide a better understanding of QBS and address the gap in the current literature described above.

Research design and approaches

To address possible confounding biases, two approaches were utilised. First, it was decided to utilise qualitative research. Qualitative research allows participants an unconstrained opportunity to provide their own narratives and insights, rather than being asked to validate the theorising of researchers.

Second, instead of studying QBS by directly asking participants to describe their attitudes and experiences related to QBS, they were asked to describe their experiences of support, first in general and without reference to women, and then with particular reference to women in the workplace – the antithesis of QBS. By inviting women to share stories about, e.g., “…those individuals who contributed most to their success” and “…who posed the most challenges for them,” one would expect that, if the QBS definitions described above held true, women’s life stories would be accounts of other women trying to sabotage and hinder their career development. Furthermore, it was reasoned that, if the traditional definitions of QBS held true when women were asked to describe their experiences of women standing in solidarity, supporting one another in the workplace, it could be expected that participants would not report such instances and, instead, describe QBSlike experiences.

Given time and cost constraints, a convenient sample of women of all ages in leadership, management, and middle-management positions across South Africa was invited to share stories of their life journeys and were asked to describe their successes and the challenges they had faced. An electronic questionnaire was designed for this purpose, and data were collected anonymously. Participants were requested to share only basic demographic information, including the year in which they were born, their home language, and the area from which they hailed. Participants were further requested to answer four open-ended items designed for the purposes of the present study. They were asked to share stories about their life and career journeys as these pertained to each of the following four items:

I1: Who contributed most to the successes you have achieved?

 I2: Who made your life journey difficult?

I3: Tell us about a woman (or women) who contributed most to your successes.

I4: In what ways can women support each other better? A sample of 42 responses was obtained, of which 21 responses were fully completed and were analysed. Participants were between 28 and 66 years of age, and most of them indicated their home language as English, followed by Zulu, Sotho, and Afrikaans.

The responses obtained were analysed, and themes were identified and coded. The themes that were identified are discussed below, supported by excerpts from some of the responses.

Results and findings

I1: Who contributed most to the successes you have achieved?

All 21 participants indicated that their parents were the main contributors to their success in life. In addition, several participants referred to their spouses, siblings, and grandparents. The quotes below are some examples that support this theme:

“My husband’s believing in me before I believed in myself” (English-speaking woman, 36, Port Elizabeth).

“My parents. I believe that the values, ethics, and leadership qualities I have were passed on from them” (English-speaking woman, 45, Cape Town).

I2: Who made your life journey difficult?

In the responses obtained from participants for the above question, most pointed to a specific parent or family member(s), as indicated in the examples quoted below:

“My mother. I don’t think she has the ability to love truly. I don’t know why anyone could ever be so twisted in life. I am grateful for all the hard lessons she taught me” (Sotho-speaking woman, 43, Pretoria).

“My father. He was a strict father. Nothing was ever easy with him. My whole childhood, it was about me pleasing him” (Zulu-speaking woman, 30, Cape Town).

One participant made specific reference to co-workers who had bullied her but did not mention their gender.

“Negative individuals who lacked emotional intelligence, societal intelligence, and who were selfishly allowing individuals to remain boxed. These behaviours are toxic and observed over time, socially and within the workplace. Limitation sets one back and also silently breaks your confidence, raising doubt consistently (English-speaking woman, 41, Cape Town). 

One participant suggested that her previous male boss had posed a problem for her.

“A previous manager. He was always blocking all possible successes and took credit for all things done in his team. Always his idea when it was a good idea (English-speaking woman, 43, Cape Town).

I3: Tell us about a woman (or women) who contributed most to your successes.

In the responses obtained from participants who shared their stories related to the item above, it was found that almost half of the participants mentioned their mother first:

“My mother. She gave me a loving and stable home to grow up in. She always encouraged me to reach my potential” (Afrikaans-speaking woman, 38, Cape Town).

Of the women who made up the sample of the study, 12 also identified a female co-worker as a person who had contributed to their success. Some of the responses received are provided below.

“I have been blessed to work with incredible women who developed me in my career. They believed in me; they saw potential and invested in me. My career could have never grown if they had not made time to show me the way” (Sotho-speaking woman, 43, Pretoria).

“There are a few … a programme manager… She taught me the street smarts, strategy, and the bigger picture of the profession, unveiling my purpose” (English-speaking woman, 58, Knysna).

“Women confident in their skin, who enjoyed the growth of others and who openly shared their challenges despite their portrayal of confidence, strength, and happiness have been the light in dark times. These women did not judge and were not afraid to share vulnerability” (Afrikaans-speaking woman, 32, Pretoria).

I4: In what ways can women support each other better?

The responses to the question above seemed to indicate that the women welcomed and were calling for greater solidarity amongst women, as suggested in their responses, some of which are provided below.

“Have the conversations people are too afraid to have – the role of gender, marriage, sexuality, children, worklife career balance, but in a way that deals with today’s world, not those dictated and still enforced as norms in society from an era gone by” (English-speaking woman, 36, Port Elizabeth).

“Being less judgmental of another woman’s journey. Instead, appreciate the arrival. Respect the choices another woman has to make, because we don’t know how many she’s caring for” (Afrikaans/English-speaking woman, 41, Cape Town).

“By lifting others up or ‘fixing another’s crown’” (English-speaking woman, 34, Mossel Bay).


The findings derived from the data suggest that, contrary to the notion that is put forth by QBS theory, women tend to support each other in their career progression. Moreover, none of the participants provided any suggestion of the presence of QBS in their workplace, nor of managers who seemed to act in such a manner. It would seem that their stories are more indicative of, not only a sense of solidarity amongst working women, but that it is often the reason behind their success.

The findings of the present study seem to support those of a 2015 study by researchers at the Columbia Business School. They investigated employee behaviours in 1 500 companies over a 20-year period. Their results revealed that, where women had been appointed to the most senior roles in an organisation, other women were far more likely to be placed in other senior positions. However, when a woman was given a senior role, but a man still held the top position, the likelihood of other women rising to senior positions fell by more than 50%. They concluded that, rather than it being the queen bee holding subordinates back, it was male executives who were window-dressing and blocking other women from also reaching the top, and so keeping the (im)balance intact[13]. Based on the latter and the findings of the present study, it would therefore seem that QBS is not nearly as prevalent as it has been held out to be, and that it is indeed a rare phenomenon.

Take home

Statistics suggest that an increase in the number of women in a country’s workforce could make a substantial contribution to economic growth[14]. The term queen bee, stereotypes not only women in leadership positions, but all working women, hurting women in organisations and, ultimately, the economy. As with all stereotypes, it shows ignorance and limited thinking, and people who use this label should be called out for advancing such negative gender ideology. Women can and want to do great things, both by themselves and in solidarity with other women.

Gerber, C and Schlechter, A. (2019).  To (queen) bee or not to be? In A. Bosch (Ed.), South African Board for People Practices Women’s Report 2019, pp.  22 – 25. Rosebank, South Africa: SABPP.

Copyright: Copyright © 2019 SABPP, University of Johannesburg (UJ) and University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).


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[2]  Staines, G.L., Tavris, C., & Jayaratne, T.E. (1973). The queen bee syndrome. In C. Tavris (Ed.), The female experience, 63-661

[3]  Dobson, R. & Iredale, W. (2006). Office queen bees hold back women’s careers. The Sunday Times.

[4] Ellemers, N. (2014). Women at work: How organizational features impact career development. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1 (1), 46-54. Klemesrud, J. (1981). Women in medicine find a need for support. The New York Times. women-in-medicine-find-a-need-for-support.html

[5] Derks, B., Van Laar, C., Ellemers, N., & De Groot, K. (2011). Gender-bias primes elicit queen-bee responses among senior policewomen. Psychological Science, 22 (11): 1243-1249.

[6] Arvate, P.R., Walczak, G.G., & Todescat, I. (2018). The queen bee: A myth? The effect of top-level female leadership on subordinate females. The Leadership Quarterly. 10.1016/j.leaqua.2018.03.002.

[7]  Irvine, C. (2008). Women find working for female bosses more stressful. The Telegraph. https://www.

[8] McGregor, J. (2015). The stereotype of the ‘queen bee’ female executive is losing its sting. The Washington Post.

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[10] Derks, B., Van Laar, C., Ellemers, N., & De Groot, K. (2011). Gender-bias primes elicit queen-bee responses among senior policewomen. Psychological Science, 22 (11): 1243-1249.

[11] Mavin, S. (2008). Queen bees, wannabees and afraid to bees: No more ‘best enemies’ for women in management? British Journal of Management, 19: S75-S84.

[12] Derks, B., Van Laar, C., Ellemers, N., & De Groot, K. (2011). Gender-bias primes elicit queen-bee responses among senior policewomen. Psychological Science, 22 (11): 1243-1249.

[13] Heggie, A. (2017). Queen bee syndrome: Fact or fiction? ice-p/2017/10/27/queen-bee-syndrome-fact-or-fiction/#

[14] Heggie, A. (2017). Queen bee syndrome: Fact or fiction? ice-p/2017/10/27/queen-bee-syndrome-fact-or-fiction/#