Why women sabotage each other in the workplace

There's nothing inevitable about 'Queen Bee' syndrome, say authors Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris.

by Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris
Last Updated: 08 Jan 2020

Women often ask us why other women attempt to undermine their professional standing or force their careers off the rails; in other words, why do women fight dirty in the workplace. We always respond by pointing out that many women support other women, advocate for their advancement, and speak up for them when they are criticised. But we then acknowledge that some women do behave like Queen Bees, bullies, and backstabbers, and we try to explain why.

What we tell them is that when women behave in these ways, it is not because they are inherently antagonistic to each other. In researching our recent book, It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace, we could find no empirical evidence supporting that view. What we did find, however, is that traditionally male career fields foster three distinct dynamics that frequently force women into direct competition with one another—competition that can turn hostile and mean-spirited.

The Leadership Table 

Men lead and dominate the major organisations in traditionally male career fields. These workplaces are overwhelmingly led by men with decidedly masculine cultures (what we call "gendered workplaces"). As a result, men are the "ingroup" and women are an "outgroup." The ingroup (typically unconsciously) reserves the great majority of seats at its organisation’s leadership table for its own members, making only a few seats available to outgroup members. This means that women must compete directly against other women if they are to obtain a leadership position. Of course, women don’t have to fight dirty when they are engaged in same-gender competition, but there is a fine line between competing vigorously to get ahead and competing underhandedly to push someone else back. There is therefore a dynamic in gendered workplaces that often brings out (some) women’s fiercest instincts to achieve success at any cost.

Queen Bees

When there are a limited number of women’s seats at an organisation’s leadership table, the women who hold these seats can come to see the ambitious women rising up behind them as dangerous rivals. They see women’s leadership as a zero-sum game. If junior women move up, they must move down. Hence, women in leadership positions can behave like Queen Bees: refusing to support other women, disparaging their abilities, and blocking their career advancement. Women leaders don’t have to behave like Queen Bees — and many don’t — but once a woman is in a leadership position, it becomes easy (unconsciously) to rationalise her own Queen Bee behaviour by thinking she is just maintaining (very) high standards.

Joining the Ingroup

Because the male ingroup controls access to virtually all career opportunities, resources, and rewards in gendered workplaces, women often see their own career success as depending on their ability to identify with the ingroup. For some women, this means becoming "one of the boys," distancing themselves from other women, and demonstrating that they are not like other women. Joan Williams, in her book What Works for Women at Work, calls this "the ‘why would I hang out with losers’ strategy of coping with gender bias." 

Dealing with Women Who Fight Dirty 

The workplace dynamics that tempt women to fight dirty in dealing with other women can only be eliminated when their organisation’s senior leadership contains a critical mass of women. 

As we discuss in the last chapter of It’s Not You It’s the Workplace, this is not easy but it is clearly possible and pays substantial dividends when it is accomplished. Short of that, however, two techniques are effective in dealing with women who fight dirty: knowledge and sisterhood.

Most women are unaware of the unique dynamics that force them into direct competition with other women in gendered workplaces. The first step in breaking the cycle of women’s same-gender workplace hostility, therefore, is for women to understand the nature and causes of these dynamics. Women need to become knowledgeable about the gender stereotypes and biases that make career advancement so much harder for them than it is for men, and how and why these difficulties create workplace dynamics that lead women into (often nasty) conflicts with each other. 

A workplace sisterhood is not a group of close personal friends. Indeed, sisterhood does not depend on friendship at all. Rather, sisterhood develops when women recognise they can do more to advance in their careers through mutual support than by working at cross-purposes. A sisterhood, therefore, is a group of women who meet periodically to share their achievements and frustrations, acknowledge the commonalities of their career obstacles, and exchange tips and techniques for avoiding or overcoming gender bias. Sisterhood typically starts small, with just a few women. But once women recognise that they do not have to fight dirty to get ahead or stay ahead, sisterhood has a way of growing rapidly and becoming very powerful. 

Through knowledge and sisterhood, women can put an end to the counter-productive temptation to fight dirty in gendered workplaces. 

Andrea S Kramer and Alton B Harris are the authors of It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace, (Nicholas Brealey, out now)


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Image credit: Nicholas Brealey (publishers)

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