Op-Ed: Queen bees muscle out other women in the workplace

By Dr Aradhana Ramnund-Mansingh, an academic at MANCOSA and former Human Resource Executive.

The Queen Bee Syndrome whereby women in power consciously impede the development of other women in the workplace, is slowly gaining ground in South Africa.

Queen Bees of the human kind are undoing the gains of gender equality in the workplace.

The Queen Bee Syndrome is one in which a woman in a position of authority views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female, while favouring males when it comes to promotion.

In nature the Queen Bee is the only queen in her colony; she is fed royal jelly and is the largest bee in the colony with the most graceful body. Contrary to nature, the human Queen Bee is anything but graceful – she is rude, arrogant and patronising.

At a time when we should be seeing more women enabling and empowering each other, there is a progressive rise in the number of Queen Bees in many corporates. This is concomitant with more women assuming executive positions than before.

The Queen Bee phenomenon has been documented by several studies. In one study, scientists from the University of Toronto speculated that the Queen Bee Syndrome may be the reason that women find it more stressful to work for female managers; no difference was found in stress levels for male workers.

Amidst challenges women face to enter the workplace; to overcome socially constructed norms; and to gain parity at work, women continue to experience the lethal sting of a Queen Bee who succeeded in her career, but refuses to help other women do the same.

Throughout centuries, women faced the constant subjugation by men in terms of policies, procedures, laws, harassment, power struggles and gender stereotyping. The boys’ networks control all the power mandates which prescribe practice and behaviour. When women report injustices and policy contraventions, the decision-making panels are often made of men who stand in solidarity to uphold decisions which discredit the woman in question.

The only individuals who understand the innate struggle and challenges women face, are women themselves. However, this narrative does not translate into the positive, happy ending that it should.

Within the South African labour spaces, the dialogue of the Queen Bee has begun but has not yet gained adequate momentum. Very limited academic research showcasing South African examples are available.

Although mostly unfamiliar in a South African context, Queen Bee was a term coined internationally in the 1970s. A Queen Bee may display some positive feminine leadership values, but she consciously chooses to impede the development of other women.

The Queen Bee recognizes her struggles towards success as a lonely journey. The widespread belief is that women have to emulate men in order to maintain success. Women have to portray male characteristics and personify men by exhibiting brash, harsh and tough behaviour, to gain some notion of respect from her male counterparts.

Queen Bees gain support from the “male tribe” of the organization if she is seen as part of their group. What female leaders fail to take cognisance of is the fact that their male colleagues will “allow” them to climb only up to a certain point and thus the glass ceiling continues to prevail.

When support, development, mentorship or advice is sought, other women will be met by aggression and a clear condescending tone of the power lines being drawn.

It is important for women to know and understand the different types of women who impede their advancement and success, and act strategically with this knowledge in mind.

There are different types of women who will obstruct; those who will agree to be your mentor but exploit you; those who show you kindness but stand firm with the boys’ network when decisions for development are put to the fore. It is critical to discern the extent your fellow sisters will pull you down.

The Queen Bee will offer no support to developing women. The Princess Bee will support other women as long as they do not violate her territory. Hence, she will mentor others only as long as they stay separate from her domain. The Phantom Bee will not facilitate finding another woman for a job vacancy – men are then allocated the job and fewer women are afforded access to new job. Then there is the Cinderella complex – the ugly step-sisters work together to undermine the success of one sister

There is, however, a spark of light within the darkness. The women who support, encourage and mentor other women by far exceed the Queen Bees. These women need to continue the stellar work that they do.

When faced with the double-edged sword in positions of power, women need to be steadfast in their recognition of challenges that the sisterhood face and not surrender their soul to the boys’ network.

Do not be hypnotised by power and lose sight of logic and sisterhood. Remember the journey; remember the struggle when more than 20 000 women, crying “we’ve had enough” marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 to protest against the apartheid pass laws, regarded one of the largest demonstrations of the time.

Together we can accomplish and overcome. Be a mentor and give courage and support to as many women as possible. If you encounter the Queen Bee and members of her royal court, make the choice not to be dampened by their crude and cold demeanour.

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