Does the Queen Bee effect still exist?

In the 2006 film The Devil wears Prada, Meryl Streep plays the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine. Everyone who works for her must cater to her quirks and whims. The film is fiction, but the example is often cited to refer to a so-called Queen Bee: a woman who works at the top of a company and is not exactly cooperative towards younger women hoping to move up the ladder. University professor and social psychologist Naomi Ellemers and professor of Organisational Psychology Belle Derks, both affiliated with Utrecht University, examined whether this effect still exists, and whether the term Queen Bee accurately describes what is going on. The results of their research were published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

queen bee
Queen Bee

Fifteen years ago in the same scientific journal, Ellemers concluded that the Queen Bee effect existed among female academics working at universities. Ellemers: ‘In our research at the time, we observed that female professors underestimated the ambitions of young female academics, the PhD students. The female professors in the male-dominated working environment also described themselves in very masculine terms.’

First women

At the time, the researchers explained the effects based on the unique position of this generation of female academics. Ellemers: ‘Many of them were the first women to be appointed in their field. No wonder this generation felt it had to further prove itself by going against other women. We hoped that the effect would naturally disappear over time with the increasing number of women in academia.’
The question the Utrecht professors asked themselves this time is: does the Queen Bee effect still exist 15 years after Ellemers’ original observation?

The effect remains

Ellemers and Derks once again interviewed hundreds of academics for their current study. In their article, they explain their analysis and conclude that 15 years after their initial findings, the phenomenon still exists. Derks: ‘More so than their male counterparts, advanced female academics underestimate the career engagement of women who are starting their academic careers. At the same time, both male and female academics who are at an advanced stage of their careers describe themselves in more masculine terms.’

Time and again, the evidence shows that both women and men behave in a more masculine manner as they reach higher positions.

Appropriate term?

The UU researchers would like to see some nuance added to the term 'Queen Bee'. Ellemers: ‘Men are still by far the dominant party at the top of academia, despite attempts to get more and more women into this upper tier. Women who do reach the top simply adapt to the masculine environment. We therefore have to ask ourselves whether Queen Bee is an appropriate term, because it suggests that this is how women deal with success.’
Derks adds that they also examined behaviour in other organisations. ‘Time and again, the evidence shows that both women and men behave in a more masculine manner as they reach higher positions. We view this as striking behaviour in women, but men actually do the same thing to move up – because that's what the organisation is asking for.’

Excessive workload

Ellemers concludes: ‘A survey by the PhD Network of the Netherlands recently revealed that many young academics have an excessive workload and are considering leaving science. We often expect young people to adapt to a demanding environment – and those who do this best are most successful. That is the conclusion we have drawn from our own research, in any case. But you could also question whether this is the best way to help young talent flourish.’