A plea to queen bees in the academy: it’s time to support other women!


 Photo by Ivan T / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped from Original

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Author: Karen Jones

The underrepresentation of women in the top echelons of our higher educational institutions has been well documented. While the finger of blame is often pointed firmly in the direction of men, this article argues that women, particularly those in senior academic positions, have a role to play in supporting their female colleagues.

The queen bee syndrome has been popularised in the media, television and film as the woman who, having broken through the so-called glass ceiling, will stop at nothing to prevent female interlopers entering her territory and threatening her power. She is a woman that will not tolerate competition.  The analogy is this: only one queen, of the insect variety, will ever exist in a hive. All of the other female bees, known as the workers, are infertile. They serve the queen and treat her like royalty, hence the ‘royal’ aspect of her name. If any other queens make their way into the hive, the queen bee uses her sting to kill them. In doing so, she protects her own position and maintains the hive.

The queen bee analogy became pertinent to me when I gave a talk to colleagues in the academy about the persistent barriers and constraints to gender equality in higher education institutions (HEIs). Although I discussed many aspects of the problem, it was a brief reference I made to female misogyny and the queen bee syndrome that seemed to resonate most with women in the audience. As I spoke on this topic, I was taken back by the number of heads that started nodding in agreement. Later, over lunch, women approached me with personal experiences of queen bees they have encountered in their careers. I was saddened by their stories but then reflecting on my own experiences, realised I too had a similar story to tell.

Early in my career, one particular queen bee that I was unfortunate to encounter, a female professor, was so notorious that she was named ‘the executioner’ by female colleagues. The tactics this queen bee adopted to fend off ambitious junior women were remarkably varied. She was infamous for demanding authorship on articles written by female subordinates, even on articles she had not read. Author’s names were frequently rearranged to promote the queen bee as first author or position her closer to the first author.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, undermining behaviour and bullying was rife, particularly in the lead up to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its successor the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The goal of these exercises is to provide UK-wide indicators of research excellence in HEIs. Entry of ones publications into the assessment exercise is considered a marker of success. During these exercises naming and shaming meetings and individual visits became the norm. Indeed, I recall several occasions when she popped into the office I shared with colleagues and, banging her fist on the table, yelled: ‘I expect 3 and 4 star publications from you’. I recall a junior female colleague being told, incorrectly, that their publications were not ‘ref-able’, meaning not of a high enough standard for submission as part of the exercise.

Battle weary, some were worn into subversion, a few gave up and left academia all together, and the rest moved to other institutions. I remember all too well the psychological impact this had on our well-being.

What are the implications for women’s leadership? Mavin and Williams argue that the term queen bee is damaging and this label should be stopped on the basis that it is sexist, outdated and undermines the career progress women have made, as well undermining their potential. There is no doubt that the queen bee analogy is bad news for women’s leadership, but unfortunately while the queen bee stings the label will stick. Not only does the queen bee prevent other women progressing, but she also gives women all round a bad reputation. One could not be blamed for thinking that if women can’t be collegial to each other, perhaps they are not cut out for leadership after all!  So this article ends with a plea to the queen bee - start behaving professionally, you are making a fool of yourself and you are damaging the reputation of women in the process. It is time to support other women.

Karen-Jones IOE Dr Karen Jones is currently Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Management at the Institute of Education, University of Reading. Her research interests include gender and women’s leadership.
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