Two-Way Street

03.08.13

Don’t Just Blame the Queen Bee

Blame the worker bees, too. Intolerance among women is entirely mutual, writes Peggy Drexler, and it isn’t getting us anywhere.

Gina has been the manager of a busy, upscale Chicago hair salon for 20 years, overseeing dozens of employees at once, and thousands over her career. By far, she reports without hesitation, the most difficult among them have been women. “The guys get angry about some direction or decision, something you’ve asked of them, and then 10 minutes later, they’re over it,” she says. “The women, though—they’re brutal. They argue or get defensive—or comply, but then give you the cold shoulder for weeks. Later, you hear they’ve been gossiping about you in the breakroom.”

I recently wrote about the increase in the numbers of “queen bees” in the workplace, women who aim to undermine or push aside their female employees out of insecurity, competitiveness, or some inherent unwillingness to help other women. As more and more females rise to management positions, their same-sex employees are reporting with greater frequency incidents of bullying, verbal abuse, and job sabotage. This may be why, according to Gallup, American employees prefer their bosses male, and not by a small margin.

But while it’s easy—or at least commonplace—to blame women on top for being over-demanding despots and unwilling mentors, is that the reality? Not quite. The truth is that intolerance among women is entirely mutual, and women are just as difficult for women to employ as they are for women to report to.

Female subordinates are often less respectful of, and deferential to, their female bosses than they are to their male bosses. They question more, push back, and expect a certain level of familiarity or camaraderie that they don’t expect from the men. This speaks to the long tradition of women being notoriously hypercritical of one another, an assertion proven by science: a study published in the journal Psychological Science concluded that women form a negative view of other women in their lives—including friends, co-workers, and, yes, bosses—far more quickly and freely than men do of other men.

Like in the case of Maria, a young lawyer who reported having tremendous difficulty hiring a secretary. “They all seemed to want to mother me, and not in a good way,” says Maria. “When I directed them—nicely, I thought—to perform certain tasks or refused to engage with them in more than a minute or so of chitchat, I’d get these looks of hurt. Like I’d run over their cat.” They’d make comments about the number of suitors who’d call Maria at the office and about her skirt lengths, then stomp off in a huff if she asked when a report might be ready. “And,” says Maria, “you know they’d never say anything to the partner down the hall about his too-tight pants!” Finally, she hired a 23-year-old guy.

Research confirms that female employees hold their female managers to different standards than they do their male managers, as noted in a 2008 study published in the British Journal of Management. They’re more likely to reject female bosses who behave in a traditionally managerial way, or “like a man,” but when the manager is a man? Not an issue. This may be because we’re still stuck on old societal expectations about the role of women serving men. Or it may be that some women use the occasion of a female boss’s success to turn the critical eye on themselves. When that doesn’t feel good, they turn it back on “the bitch in the corner office,” or, in Gina’s case, at the front desk.

“The women, though—they’re brutal. They argue or get defensive—or comply, but then give you the cold shoulder for weeks.”

Being a female boss is a classic Catch-22. For women to succeed, they have to be different, extraordinary, and not too emotional. But for them to be respected by their female employees, it seems these women also need to be relatable, likable, and “just like everyone else.” When they’re not, there’s major backlash. Just look at Marissa Mayer, who has been widely criticized for her decision to ban telecommuting, a decision she made to benefit the company—in other words, in order to do the job she was hired to do.

Another woman I met, Lorri, describes the all-female department she leads at a high school as “the second coming of the cheerleader squad.” From the day she started, Lorri has felt as if she were constantly being judged: for her decisions, for her shoes. She heard how the women she oversaw talked about other female teachers; she could only imagine how they talked about her. When Lorri implemented new restrictions in response to district-wide budget cuts, including a limit on expenses and a mandatory twice-a-month after-school commitment to students, the entire department stopped speaking to her. Meanwhile, she noted that the male department heads at the school were able to implement the changes with minimal griping from their female subordinates. “They knew it was a decision that came from somewhere else,” Lorri tells me. “But in my department, it was as if they just wanted some excuse to turn on me.”

Likely, they did. There are many women who fit the profile of the queen bee. But women are also likely to label one another as such when they aren’t, according to the British Journal of Management study. Women often expect women bosses to run the office like they might run a household. When they run it like an actual business—as in the case of Mayer—many women feel betrayed. Maria often believed the female secretaries regarded her as cold and impersonal. She didn’t want to be, but she did need to get things done. And, frankly, she needed their help with matters other than her skirt lengths.

Do successful women have an obligation to be liked? No more so than successful men. Nor do they have a responsibility to represent all women, or even some women. As we look at the rise of females in charge, there’s been speculation of a future of kinder, gentler work environments. Maybe that will happen, maybe it won’t. But guaranteed, the onus isn’t on the queen bee alone. It’s on her worker bees as well.