Tall Poppy

Queen bee syndrome


When I was in my twenties, there was a rapper by the name of Lil’ Kim who was dedicated to promoting her image as a hardcore woman in rap that also recognized sex sold CDs.  Lil’ Kim is about to launch a reality show entitled, Queen Bee (not another reality show, really?)  Throughout her career, she sported this title and it was even a part of many of her song lyrics.

Although the prime of her career was in the 90s, she has been in the media in the last few years demeaning a younger, successful female rapper that stated she looked up to Lil’ Kim.  Instead of using this as an opportunity to mentor or to be flattered by the imitation and similarity, it became a media frenzy of Lil’ Kim attacks stating her significance then, now and forever.

Queen Bee as used by Lil Kim originally stood for ‘Queen Bitch’ – and a later generation has applied ‘Queen Bey’ to Beyonce Knowles. Clearly, the Queen Bee title resonates, and there is a lot to learn from the hive!

There has always been a comparison to some women and the role of the Queen Bee in nature.  Queen Bees are a part of the colony serving as the dominant reproductive female, having the ability to determine the sex of the eggs that she lays.  The Queen Bee is surrounded by worker bees who attend to her every need.  As much as we’ve been taught that the queen bee is controlling, she doesn’t directly control the hive and yet, this expression has been attributed to women in powerful positions.  The Queen Bee has negative connotations and further exacerbates the problem that women have with one another.

According to an article in Forbes, the concept of the Queen Bee Syndrome in leadership is not a new one:

“The term “queen bee syndrome” comes from work done by University of Michigan researchers in the 1970s on issue of women bosses. According to their work published in Psychology Today in 1974 these women operating in male hierarchies sought to preserve their rare turf by thwarting attempts of other women who sought to rise as they had done. Sadly, as Drexler argues, such bias still exists. Research that Drexler cites shows that women bosses can also be bullies. According to a 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute “female bullies directed their hostilities toward other women 80% of the time – up 9% since 2007.” By contrast male bullies aimed their abuse at both genders. And a 2011 study of 1000 working women conducted by the American Management Association, 95% felt they had been “undermined by another woman at some point in their careers.” (Baldoni, 2013)

As much as I want to believe that women support one another and can work together, I can reflect on my experiences.  I, too, have examples of both awful and amazing female supervisors.

My first job out of graduate school allowed me to work with a seasoned leader who was well respected. I looked up to her and could not wait to glean from her experience.  In the beginning, it was an incredible opportunity.  I was given a significant amount of responsibility and with each task, I was dedicated and committed to executing in a spirit of excellence.  As I began to grow in recognition for my work in the community, I began to detect some underlying tension with my boss.  It was never my desire to assume her position.  I was very comfortable in my role and I felt because of my youth, I still had such a long way to go.

It began with the subtle verbal jabs that soon accelerated into limited conversation and direction.  One day, we were called into a staff meeting in which all of my duties were read off to the team and reassigned to my administrative assistant.  The admin was horrified and made it known that she did not know what to do.  It was the most bizarre situation I had dealt with.  Everyday, I would come to work with nothing to do for eight hours.  Others in leadership (other women) knew of the situation and did nothing to address it.  Even when I asked about why it happened, there was no response from my boss and my team members told me to hang in there — she was just intimidated.  After a few months, I decided to leave.  I realized that this hostile environment was not beneficial for me. At the time, I just wanted out.

I was saddened that the leader I looked up to had decided to use her power as a tool instead of addressing her insecurity.  Later, I had so many in leadership in the organization mention to me that she was a very insecure woman and that it was a shame that I had to go through that.  I think what was shameful was that others saw this and failed to intervene.  So often, in organizations, we witness such bad behavior and we do not confront power with truth.

This actually became a lesson for me and how I treated others when I became a leader.  After leaving that position, I had an array of female leaders — some who noticed talent and took it upon themselves to cultivate an environment of growth and development.  I also had other female leaders who allowed their insecurities to disrupt and destroy teams.

They failed to embrace the knowledge, gifts, and wisdom of their team so that they could always be revered.  I have made it a point to make sure that I treat both women and men with dignity and respect for who they are and what they bring to the organization.  I have learned to own my insecurities and recognize the value of being authentic.  I have learned to embrace my own story and not just the easy, feel good moments.

In the book, Leadership for the Disillusioned: Moving Beyond Myths and Heroes to Leading That Liberates, author Amanda Sinclair discusses the lives of the leaders of both Enron and WorldCom.  She explores their childhood and notes that they both had very difficult experiences and used their leadership to create a different story.  Sinclair shares that it is important to know one’s triggers in order to lead effectively.  I believe that recognizing one’s triggers is critical to understanding your story.

Leaders are human and we all have challenges.  Yet, when we fail to own our strengths and weaknesses, we allow those areas we choose not to deal with to become threats instead of opportunities for growth and reflection.  We not only hurt those that we are to steward their talents to reach the organizational goal(s) but we are also further damaged.  We lose out on an opportunity to learn, discover and become a better person because our egos have distorted our view of the possibilities.

Women in leadership must become deliberate in this area or otherwise, we continue to oppress others and marginalize them–something that most of us have experienced.  I fear the long term consequences that this behavior will have on not just the workplace but on our daughters but even our sons.  I love the quote of the brilliant Diplomat, Madeleine Albright:

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

About Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew

Dr. Froswa' Booker-Drew is a Partnership Broker. Relational Leadership Junkie. Connector. Author/Speaker/Trainer. Co-Founder, HERitage Giving Circle. She been quoted and profiled in Forbes, Ozy, Bustle, Huffington Post and other media outlets around the world. In addition, she has been asked to speak on a variety of topics such as social capital and networking, leadership, diversity, and community development to national and international audiences. This included serving as a workshop presenter at the United Nations in 2013 on the Access to Power. One of the most impactful life events for her was being a part of the documentary, Friendly Captivity, a film that followed a cast of 7 women from Dallas to India. Honors for her work include: Semi-finalist for the SMU TEDx in 2012, 2012 Outstanding African American Alumni Award from the University of Texas at Arlington, 2009 Woman of the Year Award by Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and Diversity Ambassador for the American Red Cross. Graduating with a PhD from Antioch University in Leadership and Change, she also attended the Jean Baker Miller Institute at Wellesley for training in Relational Cultural Theory and completed facilitator training on Immunity to Change. She has also completed training through UNICEF on Equity Based Evaluations, and is the author of 2 workbooks for women, Ready for a Revolution: 30 Days to Jolt Your Life and Rules of Engagement: Making Connections Last as well as a writer for several publications around the globe.

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    1 Comment

    1. marcelobiddell@yahoo.de'


      February 27, 2018 at 11:24 am

      Very informative article… clear and to the point!!

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