The working with women narrative: Queen Bee’s, “too feminine” and all that…

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a conversation I had recently with a women in leadership. She was worked up about what she described as the “feminine” behavior of “most of the women” and the male executive manager she works with.  The words, “drama” and “crying” were used and the expression “too busy being emotional to focus on important issues” was asserted.  This woman was very clear to distinguish herself from what she saw as typical “feminine” workforce behavior.  I always struggle with this type of language, but in particular when it comes from other women, and especially women in leadership roles. As women we face so many challenges in achieving equity in the workforce and I have often thought that if as women are going to be metaphorically whipped by a patriarchal workforce, I’ll be damned if we should also have to pick out our own switch to be whooped with.  That’s a bit what this type of narrative feels like.

Williams and Dempsey describe four patterns in the workforce that create barriers to women’s advancement in their 2014 book (which I highly recommend) What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know.  These four patterns (or at least some of them) will likely sound familiar to the women reading this post, they are: 1.Prove it again, 2. Balancing on the tightrope, 3. Maternal wall, and 4. Tug of war.  Prove it again refers to women needing to prove their competence over and over while men are often acknowledged for not only their previous contributions, but also for their potential.  The tightrope is prescriptive bias stemming from cultural assumptions of how women should behave. The maternal wall refers to women being “pushed to the margins of the professional world” (Williams and Dempsey, 2014, p. 128) after having children.  Tug of war occurs when gender bias against women can fuel conflict among women.  That is a very powerful thought, and one I think that bears repeating.


In Williams and Dempsey’s (2014) book, they explains that because women often encounter discrimination, bias and additional barriers versus their male counterparts in the workplace, often women will distance themselves not only from behaviors seen as too feminine, but also distance themselves from other women and align themselves with men who they see as behaving in ways more aligned with advancement.  We see this message highlighted in the media all the time.  Marissa Mayer (Google CEO) when asked about being a “girl at Google” has often responded “I’m not a girl at Google; I’m a geek at Google”. The comments from my recent discussion with this colleague remind me how prevalent this type of thinking and narrative can be, even among women in high level leadership roles.

This disassociation or seeing oneself as “other” than the other women in their organizations is an interesting phenomenon.  There has been a lot of media recently focused on “Queen Bee Syndrome”.  Just Google Queen Bee Syndrome and you will find dozens of mainstream media articles happily honing in on this stereotype of women not only disassociating themselves with their gender, but also undermining other women to ensure they sustain their Queen Bee status.  Unfortunately, this disassociation often results in women contributing to the gender stereotyping of other women.  In my analysis of the commentary from my colleague, her assertion wasn’t just that women were too emotional, but that there emotional behaviors inhibit their competence and effectiveness.  While it can be interpreted that this women was frustrated by what she viewed as stereotypical female behavior (crying, gossip, etc.) I would argue that when we group women into stereo-typically gendered categories of “too emotional = less competent” we as women are contributing to the workforce biases that too often hinder women’s workforce success.

Although the media portrays the Queen Bee phenomenon through the catty women keeping other women from advancing narrative, studies show that the Queen Bee phenomenon is often a result of gender-biased social and organizational factors. Williams and Dempsey (2014) explain this through the analogy of lobsters in a boiling pot of water.  The only way out of the pot is to climb on top of the other lobsters because only one can make it out.  When women (or any minority group) experience tokenism whereby historical circumstances suggest there is only room for one to advance to the highest rung, it becomes a win-lose environment.  In this case, seeing and defining oneself as “other” in ways that can be associated with more typical (meaning male) leadership traits is a strategy many women use and this is understandable.  Unfortunately, it also contributes to stereotypes and biases that do not serve women’s advancement well.

I think we need to bring this topic to the forefront of our attention.  Perhaps attentiveness to these patterns that drive conflict among women including awareness of our biases and the narratives we create about working with women, will help dismantle negative perceptions and stereotypes which have created barriers for women in leadership for too long.  We won’t see change if we don’t even recognize that we are contributing to the problem.  You can’t clean your house if you don’t see the dirt.  We need to challenge ourselves and others to be extremely mindful of the way we experience working with women and the way we communicate those experiences. We all need to ensure we are engaging in behaviors aimed at #advancingwomen!


Williams, J.C. and Dempsey, R. (2014). What works for women at work: Four patterns working women need to know.  New York, NY: New York University Press.women are


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