Holly Richardson: Biggest bullies in the office? Turns out it’s Queen Bees

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

“Details of your incompetence do not interest me.” Miranda Priestly says to her assistant Andy in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Later, Andy tells her boyfriend that Miranda “is not happy unless everyone around her is panicked, nauseous or suicidal.”

Miranda is a Queen Bee and, like Sauron from the Lord of the Rings, she does not share power.

While Miranda is a fictional character, Queen Bees are very real. They exist in the workplace, in politics, in neighborhood HOA’s and sadly, almost any place you might find a woman in a position of power.

U.K. researcher Cecilia Harvey describes Queen Bees as “women in the workplace that treat colleagues in a demoralizing, undermining or bullying manner.” Not to be confused with strong, ambitious women in the workplace, she says “Queen Bees are adult versions of the mean girls from school — but now they have grown up and are more calculating.” Harvey’s research — inspired by her own experience of being bullied — found that close to 70 percent of women in the workplace report being the victim of either workplace bullying or undermining by their female boss.

Queen Bee Syndrome was first identified in the 1970’s by researchers from University of Michigan after surveying 20,000 women. They found that women who were successful in male-dominated industries were at least at times likely to oppose the rise of other women and they often did so in passive-aggressive ways.

Research from the Workplace Bullying Institute suggests that as many as 58 percent of bullies in the workplace are women and that those Queen Bees chose other females as their targets almost 90 percent of the time. Being spoken down to, humiliated in front of colleagues and tasked with an impossible workload are just some of the bullying tactics women experience from a female boss or political colleague.

More than 40 years after the initial study, psychologist and researcher Peggy Drexler suggests that the problem is getting worse.

“This generation of queen bees is no less determined to secure their hard-won places as alpha females,” she says. “Far from nurturing the growth of younger female talent, they push aside possible competitors by chipping away at their self-confidence or undermining their professional standing. It is a trend thick with irony: The very women who have complained for decades about unequal treatment now perpetuate many of the same problems by turning on their own.”

Research from Allison Gabriel, assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona, found across three separate studies that there was “consistent evidence that women reported higher levels of incivility from other women than their male counterparts. In other words,” Gabriel said, “women are ruder to each other than they are to men, or than men are to women.”

“There is a chance queen bees are mean to junior female employees because they want to distance themselves from other women,” said psychologist and UCLA lecturer Kim Elsesser. “Since women often face discrimination and don’t have the same opportunities at work as men do, queen bees think they will have better opportunities if they are perceived as one of the guys. Therefore, the bees are reluctant to help other women because they don’t want to call attention to their own gender.”

One study found that women’s self-confidence was boosted when given the ability to denigrate other women.

Gabriel’s 2018 findings suggest that companies may face a greater risk of losing female employees who experience female-instigated incivility, as they reported less satisfaction at work and increased intentions to quit their current jobs in response to these unpleasant experiences.

Madeline Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” It’s got to be even hotter for women who deliberately bully and undermine other women that they could be mentoring.

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

Holly Richardson, a regular Salt Lake Tribune contributor, is grateful there are many women who are NOT Queen Bees and who are willing to mentor and support other women.