What Is “Queen Bee Syndrome”? It Might Explain Why Some Women Are “Uncivil” To Each Other At Work

Chances are, if you've ever worked in an office, you've had to deal with some pretty annoying office politics — and researchers are finding that women in particular bear the brunt of it. "Queen bee syndrome" is an idea that was first formulated in the 1970s by studies that showed that some female bosses weren't interested in helping female coworkers — and in fact, actively moved to thwart them from moving up the career ladder. But new science has shown that it's more complex than that. In the Journal of Applied Psychology, a collection of studies has shown that women experience more "uncivil" behavior in the workplace from other women than men in the workplace, from bosses to entry-level employees. And the reason why is extremely complicated.

Co-author Professor Allison Gabriel explained in a press release, "Women are ruder to each other than they are to men, or than men are to women. This isn't to say men were off the hook or they weren't engaging in these behaviors. But when we compared the average levels of incivility reported, female-instigated incivility was reported more often than male-instigated incivility by women in our three studies."

What is "incivility"? For the purposes of the study, it was, well, basic rudeness. Both men and women were asked about co-workers who'd "put them down or were condescending," said derogatory things, ignored them in meetings, or addressed them in unprofessional or demeaning terms. In other words, incivility is unprofessional behavior that does not make the recipient feel good at all. (It's important to note, however, that sexual harassment wasn't covered in this study.)

Women across the board, but particularly in lower-hierarchy positions, reported that it was other women who made them feel bad at work — and the more they were treated poorly, the more likely they were to report lower job satisfaction and move to another company. The studies by Gabriel and her co-authors estimated that this lack of productivity and incentive to get another job costs workplaces a whopping $14,000 per employee.

And it gets worse from a gender equality perspective. The participants were asked to describe their own personalities, and the researchers found something familiar: men who were warm and assertive were treated much better by their male co-workers, while women who were assertive and dominant were more likely to be treated badly by other women. In other words, men who acted less stereotypically "manly" were met with approval, while women didn't conform to gender norms, in terms of workplace demeanor, weren't. "This suggests men actually get a social credit for partially deviating from their gender stereotypes, a benefit that women are not afforded," Gabriel and her co-authors wrote.

The reason why this is even a thing at all? Internalized sexism. Quartz noted in 2017 that research shows that, while female workers believe female managers to be competent, they don't want to be managed by them, because female managers were often seen as unnervingly "dominant" and "too emotional" for such a job. Surveyed women often preferred a male boss; women who exhibited signals of power didn't seem "right" to them. Additionally, research demonstrates that, in many fields, women are made to feel that their position is continually threatened as the "token female", that there's no room for any other women, and that female coworkers will come for "their" spot rather than rising alongside them. It's no wonder there's infighting when women are competing for a much smaller slice of the pie. Women only run 32 of the richest 500 companies on the Fortune 500 list, and they only sat on 12 percent of worldwide director's board seats in 2016. The problem here isn't necessarily women being "uncivil" to their female colleagues; it's a structural system that limits opportunities for professional women and then encourages them to turn on one another.

This "queen bee syndrome" doesn't exist everywhere. Some companies have fostered environments where there's opportunity for women to help one another, be mutually supportive and get ahead together. Mentorship programs for professional women are in high demand, according to Fast Company, and are particularly getting attention in tech fields, where every new female worker is fighting male-dominated businesses and investment. The top 100 companies for women in 2017, in the yearly list put together by Working Mother Media, aren't just invested in parental leave and benefits; many of them have in-house support groups, female-run leadership training, and career counseling, and all have high levels of women in executive and managerial positions.

It's perfectly possible to have a civil working environment, where people of all genders are met with respect from their colleagues and management. But studies like these can serve as wakeup calls to intentionally combat internalized sexism in your working environment, no matter what rung of the ladder you're on.