Sexist workplace cultures turn women into ‘queen bees’

If your organisation wants more women at the top, you will not succeed just by appointing a few women to top-level positions, claim Leiden researchers. You would be better off changing the sexist organisational culture, because this creates ‘queen bee’ behaviour, where women fight for their own position rather than for their gender.

Sexist organisational cultures

Female bosses have a bad reputation. Some of them behave like queen bees: they distance themselves from their female subordinates, sabotage these women’s career chances and deny that sexual discrimination still exists. A new study based on research conducted at three police departments that has been published in Psychological Science concludes that it is wrong to blame women for this behaviour, because sexist organisational cultures actually encourage it.


Different standards

Organisational psychologist Dr Belle Derks studies how women react to sexism. From her observations of women in workplace situations, she concludes that women often have to meet different standards than men do. Competitive behaviour, often considered positive in men, is considered negative in women.

Describing workplace situations

Derks carried out a study in collaboration with Dr Colette van Laar, Prof. Naomi Ellemers and Kim de Groot. The researchers asked 63 senior police women working at three different police departments to answer an online questionnaire. Half of the respondents had to describe a workplace situation in which they believed they were discriminated against or in which they had heard sexist remarks. The other half were asked to describe a workplace situation in which their gender was no issue and in which they were valued for their personal abilities.

Leadership style

The women were then asked to describe their leadership style, to say how much they felt they differed from other women and to say whether there was still sexism within the police. How the respondents responded to these questions depended on the strength of their female identity.

Women who had not been reminded of their experiences of sexual discrimination answered like queen bees – they indicated a more male leadership style, said they were very different from other women and were more forceful in denying that there was still sexual discrimination in the police force. However, this was only if they had started out by saying that they did not identify with other women in the police force. Women who strongly identified with other women exhibited an opposite reaction: after they had thought about sexism they were actually more prepared to mentor other women and help them with their career.

Fighting for yourself

‘If you place women in top-level positions without doing anything about gender bias in the organisation, you are forcing them to distance themselves from other women,’ says Derks. ‘If women have to choose between their own opportunities and those of their gender, some will choose to fight for themselves. Why should they stand up for their group? Men don’t have to do that, do they?’

See also

Last Modified: 25-01-2012