Why wanting Queen Bees to be nicer misses the point


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Authors: Laura Guihen, Joan Woodhouse

We welcome the discussion in Karen Jones’ recent BELMAS blog of the issue of the under-representation of women in senior positions in HE. As a lecturer and a postgraduate researcher in a University that topped the league for the (worst) gender pay gap in the UK, it is a matter that concerns us deeply. Karen’s blog raises interesting questions about the ways in which leaders and researchers perceive the issues of “blame” and “responsibility”. We were, though, left feeling a little uneasy with the argument that women in senior positions should be supporting other women’s career development. We have a number of concerns about this.

First, the author points out that traditionally men have been blamed for women’s under-representation in the upper echelons of HE, and seems to propose instead that the “finger of blame” should be turned on the women who currently hold positions of leadership in HEIs. Shifting the blame does not change the situation and clouds our understanding of the complex factors that combine to frame women’s career progression. It is also potentially very divisive.

Second, the ‘Queen Bee’ is an unhelpful stereotype of women. Karen’s anecdotal evidence of particularly toxic female leaders, whilst sad to read, left us wondering whether male academics acting in the same way (bullying, appropriating others’ work and claiming first authorship, etc.), would attract such criticism. Karen seems to be arguing that we should expect women to be better than this, more ethical, more considerate of other women, because they are women, rather than because they are leaders. As Mavin argues, “continued unproblematised use of queen bee to describe individual senior women presents another “blame or fix” the woman position; it deflects constructive analysis of senior management in gendered organizations and ignores the complex gendered processes which socially construct the experiences and identities of senior women”. A more nuanced understanding is needed, along with a recognition that there is no one simple solution.

Third, whilst it would be wonderful to think that we could rely on senior women to support other women’s career development, this misses the point. University leaders, irrespective of gender, need to be working to support the equitable career development of all staff, and to look critically at their employment practices and strategies for staff development, recruitment, retention and promotion to ensure equity. We wonder what type of work women are engaged in that might slow down or halt their career progress? Are they more likely to be taking on teaching, administration, pastoral care of students and so forth rather than the more prestigious research and producing REF-able papers?  Are women over-represented in part-time and temporary work so that it works against their overall career progression? Rather than directing our frustration at other women, we need to tackle the under-representation of women in professorships and senior posts by bringing pressure to bear on senior leaders, for example, by insisting that women have the same amount of research time as their male colleagues.

Fourth, Karen seems to define leadership as consonant with collegiality and suggests that female leaders who cannot be collegial may not be ‘cut out for leadership’. This led us to wonder whether fostering collegiality in the workplace was viewed as a "woman's job".  Shouldn’t all leaders (irrespective of gender) be involved in creating collaborative and collegial cultures? Or is this another way in which we want women leaders to be better?

There is a need to change the structures, cultures and customs that perpetuate inequality in HE. Unfortunately creating new stereotypes and attacking other women because they are not as ‘nice’ as we expect them to be does little to progress this project. Clarity in our demands and a determination to hold senior leaders accountable might, though, be a good start.

Laura Guihen is a third year PhD student at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the career histories and professional aspirations of women deputy headteachers. She is particularly interested in how potential female aspirants perceive the secondary headteacher role. 
Joan Woodhouse is Lecturer in Education at the University of Leicester and is currently the Postgraduate Tutor with responsibility for the EdD (Doctorate of Education), a part-time, professional doctorate programme designed for full-time teachers.
If you have an interest in gender and leadership, please consider joining the BELMAS Gender and Leadership Research Interest Group (RIG). To join the RIGs, become a BELMAS member or click the box alongside the relevant RIG groups on your 'My Details' page. Views or opinions expressed in BELMAS blog articles are solely those of the author and do not represent the views or expressions of BELMAS or BELMAS RIGS.
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