If You’re a Woman, Success Is a Syndrome

If you happened to be watching the Today Show earlier this week, you might have caught a segment on how women bosses are more likely to promote men, and how this relates to “Queen Bee Syndrome.” According to the story, a Queen Bee is a woman in a supervisory position within a company and “once she gets positioned, she doesn’t play very nicely in the sandbox.”

Viewers were told that a new study suggests women bosses are more likely to help male workers than female workers, and that men receiving such support were therefore more optimistic about their chances for career success.

I don’t know what was more interesting–watching Meredith Vieira trying to keep her guest experts focused on the main point of the segment (that women are bad bosses) or the fact that, while this could be considered a factually accurate take-away from the research in question, it is by no means the most important conclusion drawn by the researcher.

Sexing up the story to focus on women keeping other women down in the workplace certainly isn’t doing anybody any favors. As career expert Marci Alboher tried to point out to Vieira,

We aren’t helping the situation by focusing on a ‘syndrome.’ When men succeed we don’t talk about a syndrome, we talk about success.

The show segment was based on work by University of Cincinnati researcher David J. Maume and published in the May 2010 issue of Social Science Research. Maume set out to discover whether or not female bosses serve as “change agents” who enhance the careers of their female subordinates, or as mere “cogs in the machine” who have no effect on the careers of the women who work for them.

His research seems to indicate that females who break the glass ceiling do tend to be “cogs in the machine”– women who seek “to emulate the drive, ambition and work habits of male superiors”–which causes them to distance themselves from women’s issues in the workplace. He reports that female supervisors pay more attention to male subordinates “as a way of conforming to organizational expectations to advance men’s career prospects.”

All of this was played up in the media, not only on the Today Show but in several newspaper articles that eagerly picked up on the news that women don’t help other women in the workplace. What nobody seemed to want to focus on was Maume’s conclusions, in which he tries to explain possible reasons for what he found.

Maume writes that as women climb the corporate ladder, there are often workplace dynamics unleashed that work to restore men’s more privileged positions. If excluding women from the boy’s club of networking opportunities, ratcheting up job demands and increasing harassment directly or indirectly have their desired effect, there is a high likelihood that women will either quit their jobs or be fired. Given that women who survive such hazing will have developed pretty thick skins, it’s doubtful they will be the nurturing corporate “mommies” it appears some workers expect them to be once they do reach the top.

The other guest on the Today Show, clinical psychologist Robi Ludwig, actually brought up the connection between women bosses and mothers, saying that when social science researchers first began looking at women in the workplace they expected to find that women would “nurture other women, they would be better bosses.” She then went on to say,

When we found the opposite to be true, it was shocking. We want women to be the good mother.

Ludwig has a lot of gendered ideas about bosses. In her companion piece on the Today Show website, she writes,

Women who reach the top try to manage like men, yet it doesn’t work as well for them. Men can behave in a way found unacceptable in women. Loud, public directives from the female boss are often interpreted as nasty or offensive. For men, this is not always the case.

She ends her article suggesting that women who are loud and directive are doing something wrong. She writes that she hopes in the future female bosses will find their own niche and become “the nurturing, supportive bosses that social theorists believed they could be.”

We shouldn’t expect women to change and become something social theorists always knew they could be if only they tried hard enough. Women in the workplace have been trying hard enough for long enough as it is.

If feminism is about anything, it’s about moving away from gender stereotypes. Ludwig and others seem to find it easier to see successful women as bitchy Queen Bees rather than attributing their decisiveness and drive to the same motivating factors that we regularly praise in men. Everyone wants to succeed on her, or his, own terms, not on outdated standards and gendered modes of behavior.

As Dartmouth professor Ella Bell said on the Today Show, it’s everyone’s responsibility to improve office dynamics: “It’s not about fixing women. It’s about making organizations more flexible and more tolerant.”

Photo courtesy of NBC.com.


  1. WhiteFeather Christie Hunter says:

    As a woman in the workplace who has legitimately suffered under a Queen Bee, I can tell you that feminism doesn't excuse abuse of authority by women. My boss, a woman, openly admitted to me that she was more fond of male employees and that there were 'too many damn women' in the workplace already. She also informed me that it was her personal mission to institute her own brand of gender equality, by hiring men instead of women. This article gets all up in arms about a moot point, while negating the real point of the original argument. There are actually female chauvinist pigs, unfortunately. Let's not be guilty of whitewashing or excusing bad behavior, just because we're feminist and it was a woman who did it. BTW, this wasn't a single experience, either – I've experienced another female supervisor also diligently work to oppress her female employees in a grab for power. I'm not alone in my experiences, either. Sure, we can call it a result of having to fight for power in the workplace in the first place, but there's more to the story than that and we as a successive generation of smart, feminist women surely should know better.

  2. @ Christie: That is so shocking. I mean, I've known that female chauvinists exists, but it is still shocking to hear about them. I don't understand it. Simply, Does Not Compute.

    I wonder if some of those female chauvinist bosses, who purposely hold other women down, do so because they bought into the misogynist belief (myth!) that there is only room enough for X number of women. The truth is, there is only room enough for X number of *employees* – and I don't give a damn what your genitals consist of, you are *all* competition, not just the women. Ridiculous.

    While I agree with the article, about the need to stop expecting female bosses to be motherly (not to mention, I don't want to be mothered as a professional adult), I do expect some sort of mentoring (official or unofficial), in a very professional (NON-mothering) manner. The same way the men do it – but not because it's how men do it, but because it's well…professional! The Old Boys Club…they help each other out, as buddies & colleagues – not as "fathers." We need to instill an Ol' Girl's Club, which I feel very strongly about, and wrote about on DailyWorth.com: http://www.dailyworth.com/posts/441-Build-an-Old-

    • That’s a great post that you put up Kenia. I’ve already read it and commented on it. I think this is something that has hindered feminism for a long time.

  3. Just as a thought, this kind of issue has hit feminism from many angles over the decades. Our behaviour towards each other hasn’t always been supportive. Women not supporting each other in the workplace, white feminists turning their backs on black feminists to get the vote, nasty behaviour towards each other in feminist institutions and so on. This behaviour stems from the fact that we have been ‘inferior’ to men for the last several millenia. We have had to fight each other to get the strongest partner etc. Whereas men, without the inferiority complex, divide and conquer and give each other a lot of strengthening support.

    We women need to stop seeing ourselves as inferior and, as said above, not see a limit in the number of women that can be in a company just as we used to see a limit in the number of ‘good’ men.

    I personally don’t see it as a shock that those nasty women managers aren’t acting like mommys (do we always have to limit women’s roles into mother or bitch), but that we’d hoped to see more women commaderie and it hasn’t happened. We had expected women to begin ol’ girls clubs and work together as ‘comrads in arms’ per se.

    It’s like the continual habit of dising girl things as not as good as boy things. What those managers can’t see, because they’ve had to get rid of them in themselves to survive, is the strengths that women bring to an organisation.

    This is why I want to start my own business that hires mainly women. I intend to train the women under me to help them in their own careers and to value themselves and others. If we want to change the world, then we have to start with ourselves and we have to stop acting inferior.

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