British Journal of Social Psychology (2011), 50, 519–535
C ?2010 The British Psychological Society
Do sexist organizational cultures create the
Belle Derks1∗, Naomi Ellemers1, Colette van Laar1
and Kim de Groot2
1Leiden University, The Netherlands
2TNO Management Consultants, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands
‘Queen Bees’ are senior women in masculine organizational cultures who have
fulfilled their career aspirations by dissociating themselves from their gender while
simultaneously contributing to the gender stereotyping of other women. It is often
assumed that this phenomenon contributes to gender discrimination in organizations,
and is inherent to the personalities of successful career women. We argue for a social
identity explanation and examine organizational conditions that foster the Queen Bee
in The Netherlands who participated in an on-line survey. In line with predictions,
indicators of the Queen Bee phenomenon (increased gender stereotyping and masculine
career with low gender identification and who had subsequently experienced a high
degree of gender discrimination on their way up. By contrast, the experience of gender
discrimination was unrelated to signs of the Queen Bee phenomenon among women
mobility response of low gender identified women to the gender discrimination they
encounter in their work.
I never used to believe in the glass ceiling, but by now I’ve realised it most definitely exists.
It’s caused by the masculine culture that men unconsciously preserve amongst each other.
The other day for example I was told that while at work I should control my emotions
– Female senior executive, age 43
It is my experience that especially women are women’s greatest enemy: They are much
more critical of other successful women than men are.
– Female principal consultant, age 50
∗Correspondence should be addressed to Dr Belle Derks, Social and Organisational Psychology Unit, Institute for Psychological
Research, Leiden University, PO Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands (e-mail: email@example.com).
Belle Derks et al.
Although the last decades have seen an increase in the number of women in the
workplace, women all over the world still receive lower payment than their male
counterparts and are less likely to reach higher management positions in organizations
(Catalyst, 2002; Eurostat, 2009; Merens & Hermans, 2009). As exemplified by the two
opening quotes that we recorded from two respondents in the current study, women
today still face pervasive gender stereotypes and gender discrimination while attempting
to climb the organizational ladder (Agars, 2004; Schein, 2001). Women aspiring to
achieve positions of power have to contend with negative stereotypes suggesting
that women have lower leadership ability, career commitment, and emotional stability
(Eagly, Makhijani, & Klonsky, 1992; Heilman, 2001). Moreover, many organizations are
dominated by men, leading to a preference for masculine over feminine work styles and
a lack of female role models (Davey, 2008; Eagly, Karau, & Makhijani, 1995; Kanter,
1977; Linehan & Scullion, 2008; Yoder, 1994, 2002). As illustrated by the second
quote, women in the workplace are sometimes seen as principally responsible for
damaging the careers of other women. Indeed, psychological research on women in the
workplace has identified ‘Queen Bees’ who achieve career success by derogating other
women while simultaneously emphasizing their own career commitment and masculine
Jayaratne, 1974). In the current study, we aim to show that, rather than being a separate
force obstructing the advancement of women at work, the Queen Bee phenomenon is a
consequence of gender discrimination in the workplace which motivates some women
(i.e., women who do not identify highly with their gender) to enhance their own success
by subscribing to gender stereotypes while simultaneously emphasizing how they differ
from other women.
The Queen Bee phenomenon
It is often assumed that sexist behaviour in work settings mostly comes from men
(Brenner, Tomkiewicz, & Schein, 1989; Jackson, Esses, & Burris, 2001). However, recent
research suggests that women who succeed in male-dominated settings can also play a
negative role in the advancement of their female subordinates. Although it is sometimes
found that women who do achieve positions of power are motivated to improve career
opportunities for other women and serve as their role models, several studies have
shown women in positions of power to oppose rather than support attempts to improve
the position of their female subordinates (e.g., Ellemers et al., 2004; Staines et al.,
1974). This behaviour, whereby female leaders implicitly legitimize rather than question
the disadvantaged position of women within their organization and perpetuate the
organizational culture in which they became successful, has been termed the ‘Queen
Bee syndrome’ (Staines et al., 1974).
Evidence for the Queen Bee syndrome comes from studies showing female rather
than male employees to be particularly critical of the career commitment, assertiveness,
and leadership skills of their female colleagues (Ellemers et al., 2004; Garcia-Retamero &
Ellemers et al. (2004) showed that female rather than male professors rated female PhD
students as less committed to their career than male PhD students. At the same time,
the female professors defined themselves in quite masculine terms, suggesting their
disengagement from their gender group. These stereotypical opinions expressed by
women in the workplace are particularly detrimental for the reputation of other women
as their criticism is perceived to be more credible and persuasive than that of men
Experienced sexism and the Queen Bee
(Sutton, Elder, & Douglas, 2006), and less likely to be detected as gender bias (Baron,
Burgess, & Kao, 1991). In essence, gender bias expressed by women provides a highly
powerful legitimization of the disadvantaged position of women in the workplace. When
successful women turn into Queen Bees during the development of their career, they
can obstruct the advancement of women below them.
Discussions of the Queen Bee phenomenon, especially in the popular media (see
Mavin, 2008, for an overview), have concluded from these findings that women are their
own worst enemies, and that it is not men but actually women who stand in the way of
the advancementofwomeninthe workplace.Thisconclusionrelatestotwointerrelated
for gender discrimination in the workplace. Firstly, women are expected to help and
promote each other in the workplace, while men are expected to compete amongst
each other for the best jobs (Mavin, 2008). Secondly, women who do not do this but
who join the competition for higher career outcomes are seen as particularly hostile and
an important cause of gender discrimination in the workplace, and research has started
addressingthe questionofwhothese womenare,exploringstable personalitytraitssuch
as low self-esteem or traditional gender attitudes to explain their hostility towards other
women (Cooper, 1997; Cowan, Neighbors, DeLaMoreaux, & Behnke, 1998).
In the current study, we focus on the social context as a relevant factor to show
that, in addition to being a cause of gender discrimination in the workplace, the Queen
Bee phenomenon is an important consequence of workplace experiences, namely the
gender discrimination women experience during their career. Instead of looking for
stable individual dispositions or gender differences, we thus relate the Queen Bee
phenomenon to consequences of addressing individual workers in terms of their gender
group. Specifically, we argue that work settings in which women experience a high
degree of gender prejudice and discrimination may lead women to comply with existing
gender stereotypes to the degree that they concern other women (e.g., ‘other women
are less career oriented than men’). In such contexts, setting oneself apart from other
women (‘I am, by exception, very career oriented’) is a strategy that can successfully
improve the prospects for individual women. Importantly, we argue that not all women
women who are not strongly identified with their female identity in the workplace are
likely to become Queen Bees while striving for positive career outcomes.
Queen Bee behaviour as a response to social identity threat
Ellemers (2001) was the first to explain the Queen Bee phenomenon as a response to
social identity threat. Social identity is that part of people’s self-image that is derived
from the groups to which they belong (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Women working in
organizations in which their gender is devalued, experience this as a threat to their social
identity. Social identity threat can be reduced either by behaviours aimed to improve the
standing of the group (‘collective mobility’, e.g., women combating negative stereotypes
to improve the outcomes of women within their organization) or by a psychological
dissociation from the group that negatively affects one’s identity, accompanied by
attempts to improve personal outcomes instead (‘individual mobility’, e.g., women
stressing differences between themselves and other women in order to improve their
own career outcomes).
Belle Derks et al.
Whether women strive to improve their social identity through individual or
collective mobility is determined, in part, by their identification, that is the degree to
which their gender is central to their self-definition. Previous work has found that high
identifiers tend to stick with their group and work to improve their group’s reputation
when it is threatened. Low identifiers, however, distance themselves more easily from
the group when it has a low reputation and instead tend to work for individual status
improvement (Derks, Van Laar, & Ellemers, 2009; Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 1997). It is
important to note that, even though high versus low identifiers can be distinguished and
show different types of responses, identification is a group-based contextual variable
rather than a stable personality trait. The degree to which individuals identify with a
group is likely to differ across group types and contexts. For example, women who do
not identify with their gender group in one context (e.g., while at work) can identify
From a social identity perspective, the Queen Bee phenomenon can be seen as the
response of women who enter an organization with relatively low gender identification
(e.g., because they think their gender should be irrelevant while at work) and whose
social identity is then threatened by an organizational culture that communicates that
women are less worthy of achieving career success than are men. Even when women
are not invested in their gender group at work gender bias is still threatening to their
social identity because others categorize them into a category that they do not want to be
placed in (‘categorization threat’, Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 1999). Low
identifiers tend to respond to categorization threat by further dissociating themselves
stressing their own masculine characteristics, as in the Queen Bee phenomenon. Indeed,
in their examination of female university professors, Ellemers et al. (2004) found that
especially women from the older generations (who achieved success when gender
stereotypes were more negative than they are today) communicated the most gender
stereotypical views of their female graduate students and reported the most masculine
self-descriptions. However, although Ellemers and colleagues suggested this behavioural
pattern to be indicative of an individual mobility response to social identity threat (see
also Ellemers, 2001), they did not test directly whether it were the low gender identified
women in particular who responded in this way.
The present research
The current study is the first to test whether the masculine self-descriptions and
positions can be predicted by the amount of gender discrimination they experienced
during their own career. We predict that the more gender discrimination women
experienced along their way up the organizational ladder, the more they will work
to improve their own outcomes by perpetuating these negative images of other women
while simultaneously describing themselves in masculine terms. Moreover, given that
individual mobility strategies are pursued mostly by individuals who do not identify
strongly with their devalued group, we predict to find most signs of the Queen Bee
phenomenon among women who report having relatively low gender identification at
the time they entered the workforce. Combining these predictions, indicators of the
Queen Bee phenomenon (i.e., more masculine self-descriptions, increased stereotypical
perceptions of other women’s career commitment, and more differentiation of the self
Experienced sexism and the Queen Bee
from other women) were expected to be found especially among senior women who
reported to have been relatively low identified with their gender when they entered
the workforce and who indicated experiencing a high degree of gender discrimination
during the development of their career.
We tested this prediction in a sample of successful senior female employees from
a number of different Dutch companies. Although in recent years, The Netherlands
have seen a steady increase in the percentage of working women, 75% of women work
part-time, and women receive on average 6.5% lower pay than men (when controlling
for factors such as education and experience). Moreover, there are very few women in
leadership positions in The Netherlands, for example women make up only 7% of the
boards of the 100 largest companies (Merens & Hermans, 2009). Through an Internet
survey, we sought toexamine how beingaseniorwomanwith asuccessfulcareerwithin
an organization in which this is relatively rare, affects the opinions women hold about
themselves and their female subordinates.
Participants were 94 women with a senior position within their company (Mage= 43.32,
range 29–60, SD = 7.33). To improve the generalizability of the findings, rather than
examining female employees within one company, we invited women from several
private, public, and semi-public organizations in The Netherlands to participate (i.e.,
four consultancy firms, one governmental ministry, and one training centre). They
were recruited through their HR managers who identified women with relatively senior
positions in their company (self-reported seniority M = 4.13, SD = 0.66 on a scale
from 1 [junior] to 5 [senior]). Participants were contacted via e-mail to complete the
Internet survey. The vast majority of respondents were highly educated (98% held at
least a BA degree), and reported having a high (M = 7.93, SD = 1.22 on a 10-point
scale) and influential (M = 3.50, SD = 0.95 on a five-point scale) position within their
organization. Respondents were contracted to work on average 36.6h per week (range
28–42, SD = 3.45) which is considerably higher than the average among Dutch women
career oriented. Of the participants, 72% indicated having a managerial position (21%
top management, 50% middle management, and 29% lower management). Two-thirds of
the participants (63%) had at least one child. Overall, the companies in which women
worked were perceived as relatively male dominated: the average percentage of female
employees in the organizations was estimated to be 37% (SD = 18.96) dropping to an
estimated 22% women in managerial positions (SD = 22.45).
The survey was introduced as a questionnaire examining the factors that promote
or hinder the career advancement of women in The Netherlands. Respondents were
reminded of the low number of women in top management and were subsequently
asked to answer questions about their own career experiences. All variables in the
questionnaire were measured on seven-point scales unless otherwise indicated (1 =
completely disagree, 7 = completely agree).
Belle Derks et al.
We first measured participants’ current gender identification with three items (i.e.,
‘Currently I feel closely connected to other women’, ‘Currently I feel part of the group of
to think back to when they started working and to report their gender identification at
career start (three items, ? = .91, e.g., ‘When I started working I felt part of the group
of women’). A principal components analysis on all six items measuring current gender
identification and identification at career start revealed a clear two-factor structure,
explaining 81% of the variance, in which each item loaded on the factor it was designed
to measure. We measured prejudice and gender discrimination experienced with 11
items (e.g., ‘In my career I have been mocked or discriminated against because I am a
woman’, ‘In my career I experienced that ambitious women were hindered in pursuing
their career and aspirations’, ‘I feel that my gender has stood in the way of obtaining
important promotions and raises’, ‘The companies I worked for had a positive attitude
towards women pursuing a career [reverse coded]’, ? = .92).
Indicators of the Queen Bee phenomenon
We selected eight items from Bem’s Sex Role Inventory (Bem, 1974; see also Ellemers
et al., 2004) and asked participants to indicate to what degree masculine (independent,
dominant, adventurous, courageous, ? = .65) and feminine (caring, modest, kind,
accommodating, ? = .76) traits characterized them. To assess gender stereotyping,
we used four-item scales derived from Ellemers et al. (2004). Participants were asked to
think about their subordinates and report the career commitment of the average male
(? = .75) and female employee (? = .57; e.g., ‘The average male/female employee finds
it important to be successful’, ‘The average male/female employee often considers what
he/she can do to advance in the organization’). Moreover, we adjusted these items to
measure personal career commitment (? = .76; e.g., ‘I often consider what I can do to
climb up in the organization’).
Finally, given the correlational nature of the study, it was important to check whether
participants who reported low versus high levels of gender identification and experi-
enced discrimination did not differ on any other variables that were potentially related
to this difference such as their demographics or work outcomes. For example, it could
be that women who reported high levels of experienced discrimination or gender
identification were women who had made different life choices (e.g., lower working
hours, more children) or who received different work outcomes (lower organizational
levels, lower seniority, less influence). To be able to examine these alternative expla-
nations, we measured the following background variables: age, number of children,
seniority (1 = very junior, 3 = mid–level, 5 = very senior), the organizational level
participants had reached (1 = very low, 10 = very high), how much influence they
had within their organization (1 = very little influence, 5 = very much influence), the
number of hours they were hired to work per week, the gender composition of the
company currently worked for (‘Please estimate the percentage of women working
in your company’), and the percentage of women in management positions in this
Experienced sexism and the Queen Bee
We first examined correlations between theoretically relevant explanatory variables
(gender identification at career start and experienced gender discrimination) and the
background variables (see Table 1). This enabled us to exclude a number of alternative
explanations. Importantly, there was no relationship between the core predictors,
namely perceived initial identification and experienced gender discrimination. As
such, there were no indications that reports of experienced discrimination where
contaminated by level of gender identification or that gender identification was tainted
by experienced discrimination.
Secondly, women who reported having entered the workforce as low versus high
identifiers did not differ in terms of demographic background variables (age, number
of children), current work outcomes (e.g., their seniority, amount of influence that
accompanied their current job or the number of hours they worked) nor the type
of organizations they currently worked for (i.e., its gender composition). The only
difference found between women who entered the workforce as low versus high
identifiers was, not surprisingly, their current gender identification (r = .43, p < .01).
However, we established that gender identification at career start showed a sufficient
amount of unique variance that was unrelated to current gender identification to
permit its use as a separate predictor of the Queen Bee phenomenon. Importantly,
the moderate size of the correlation implied that only 18% of the variance in initial
gender identification was shared with current gender identification leaving 82% of
unique variance to independently predict other variables associated with the Queen
Bee phenomenon. Moreover, almost all respondents (83 out of 94) indicated a different
lower and higher levels were reported) indicating that they were able to differentiate
between these two variables (for evidence of the reliability of retrospective self-reports,
see Jaspers, Lubbers, & De Graaf, 2009).
Finally, there were no indications that women who reported more gender discrim-
ination differed in any other way from women reporting less experienced gender
discrimination except for the type of organization they worked in (i.e., as expected,
women in organizations that were predominantly staffed by men reported experiencing
more gender discrimination).
recommendations by Aiken and West (1991). In step 1, we entered control variables
(i.e., current gender identification, participants’ age, and organizational level). In step 2,
we tested the main effects of initial gender identification and experienced gender
discrimination (both standardized). In step 3, we tested the predicted moderation effect
of gender identification by entering the interaction between initial gender identification
and experienced discrimination. Significant interactions were interpreted by calculating
simple slopes for low (−1 SD) and high (+1 SD) identifiers and for women experiencing
relatively low (−1 SD) and high (+1 SD) levels of gender discrimination. Table 1 reports
the means, standard deviations, and zero-order correlations between the independent
and dependent variables.
Belle Derks et al.
Table1. Means, standard deviations, and zero-order correlations between independent, dependent, and background variables
Experienced sexism and the Queen Bee
Masculine and feminine self-descriptions
The regression analysis on masculine self-description revealed a main effect of organi-
zational level, B = 0.19, SE = .09, F(1,90) = 5.05, p = .027, semi-partial r2= .05,
indicating that women higher up in the organization generally described themselves
as more masculine. In addition, the predicted interaction between experienced gender
discrimination and gender identification was significant, B = −0.15, SE = .08, F(1,87) =
3.73, p = .057, semi-partial r2= .04. As depicted in Figure 1, in line with predictions,
the women who described themselves most masculine were low identifiers who had
experienced a high amount of gender discrimination. Specifically, among women who
were less identified with their gender, the amount of experienced gender discrimination
was significantly related to high masculine self-descriptions, B = 0.27, SE = .11, t(87) =
gender discrimination was unrelated to masculine self-description, t(87) = −0.29, p =
.78. As a result, among women who reported having experienced relatively high levels
of gender discrimination, those low identified at career start now described themselves
as somewhat more masculine than those who were initially highly identified with other
women, B = −0.20, SE = .11, t(87) = −1.754, p = .08.
The degree to which participants described themselves in a feminine way was
unrelated to gender identification or experienced discrimination. Thus, the experience
of gender discrimination among low identified women was related to more masculine
but not less feminine self-descriptions.
We examined the degree to which women negatively stereotyped other women by
calculating whether they reported a difference between the career commitment of male
male than female career commitment). As predicted, the relation between experienced
discrimination and gender stereotyping was significantly moderated by participants’
initial gender identification, B = −0.26, SE = .11, F(1,87) = 5.91, p = .02, semi-partial
Figure1. Masculine self-description (seven-point scale) as a function of gender identification at career
start and experienced gender discrimination.
Belle Derks et al.
Male-female career commitment
Figure2. Difference in reported career commitment of average male and female employee as a
function of gender identification at career start and experienced gender discrimination.
r2= .06 (see Figure 2).1Again, the highest amount of gender stereotyping of others in
high levels of gender discrimination. Specifically, among women who reported to be less
identified with their gender at career start the more discrimination they had experienced
the larger the gender gap in career commitment they reported, B = 0.46, SE = .16,
t(87) = 2.90, p = .005. Among highly identified women, experienced discrimination
was unrelated to gender stereotyping as predicted. Moreover, among women who
larger gender gap in the career commitment of male and female subordinates than high
identifiers, B = −0.31, SE = .16, t(87) = −1.93, p = .057.
Personal career commitment and distancing
To examine whether women rated themselves as different from other women, we asked
participants to indicate their own career commitment. Personal career commitment
was predicted by the interaction between initial gender identification and experienced
gender discrimination, B = −0.20, SE = .10, F(1,87) = 4.56, p = .036, semi-partial
r2= .04 (see Figure 3). Whereas high identifiers reported similar levels of career
commitment irrespective of experienced discrimination (t < 1), low identifiers who
had experienced high compared to low levels of gender discrimination reported higher
career commitment, B = 0.429, SE = .14, t(87) = 3.16, p < .01. Consequently, among
women who reported experiencing high levels of gender discrimination, low identifiers
1Analyses for male and female career commitment separately, revealed that this effect was jointly driven by perceptions
of high male career commitment, as well as low female career commitment. Reported male career commitment (M =
5.39, SD = 0.80) was predicted by the interaction term in the regression model, B = −0.16, SE = .08, F(1,87) = 3.79,
p = .055, semi-partial r2= .04. Whereas high identifiers reported similar levels of male career commitment irrespective
of experienced discrimination (Mlowdiscrimination= 5.42, Mhighdiscrimination= 5.38), low identifiers who had experienced
relatively high levels of discrimination reported higher male career commitment (M = 5.69) than low identifiers who reported
lower levels of experienced discrimination (M = 5.10). Although this interaction effect did not reach significance in the
analysis of female career commitment (M = 3.80, SD = 0.69), B = 0.11, SE = .07, F(1,87) = 2.26, p = .14, semi-partial
r2= .02, the estimated means showed the predicted pattern: low identified women who had experienced a high degree of
gender discrimination reported lower female career commitment (M = 3.58) than low identifiers who had experienced less
discrimination (M = 3.92) and high identifiers (Mlowdiscrimination= 3.81, Mhighdiscrimination= 3.89).
Experienced sexism and the Queen Bee
Personal career commitment
Figure3. Personal career commitment (seven-point scale) as a function of gender identification at
career start and experienced gender discrimination.
reported higher personal career commitment than high identifiers, B = −0.27, SE = .14,
t(87) = −1.90, p = .06.
In order to check the degree to which women actually distanced themselves from
other women (by rating their personal career commitment as higher than the career
commitment of other women), we directly compared the reports of personal career
commitment and female career commitment that were discussed above. Analysis of the
(positive scores indicate higher personal than female career commitment) revealed
the predicted interaction, B = −0.31, SE = .11, F(1,87) = 8.27, p = .005, semi-
partial r2= .07 (see Figure 4). In line with the results of gender stereotyping and
personal career commitment discussed above, the women who reported the largest
discrepancy between themselves and other women were the women who reported
low gender identification when they started their career and who experienced gender
discrimination during the development of their career. As predicted, low identifiers
reported a significantly larger difference between themselves and other women to the
Self-female career commitment
Figure4. Difference in reported personal career commitment and career commitment of average
female employee as a function of gender identification at career start and experienced gender
Belle Derks et al.
p < .001. By contrast, high identifiers reported the same difference between themselves
and other women regardless of the discrimination they reported to have experienced.
high identifiers to emphasize the difference between themselves and other women, B =
−0.43, SE = .16, t(87) = −2.68, p = .01.
In the popular media, research on the Queen Bee phenomenon has been summarized as
showing that ‘female rivalry in the workplace may sometimes be as important as sexism
in holding back women’s careers’ (Dobson & Iredale, 2006). The current study is the first
experienced by women rather than a female characteristic obstructing the advancement
of women in the workforce. The results show that women who displayed most signs of
stereotyping and distancing from other women) were women who reported being low
gender identified when they entered the workforce and who experienced a high degree
of gender discrimination on their way up. As such, these results present a more nuanced
view of the popular idea that women in general are more inclined than men to compete
against each other, and that as such women are their own worst enemies.
Instead, the results imply that the Queen Bee phenomenon is a result of social con-
textual circumstances and in particular the social identity threat that women experience
in companies that discriminate against women. The tension between women’s personal
ambitions and the gender stereotypes expressed around them creates a threat to their
social identity, particularly so if the gender identity is not relevant for their self-view in
that context (in the case of low identifiers). Although one way to deal with this threat is
to fight gender bias and to improve women’s outcomes, low identifiers may experience
social categorization threat (Branscombe et al., 1999) leading them to disengage from
their gender group in an attempt to prevent others from evaluating them on the basis
of their gender. The current study indeed confirmed the significance of women’s social
identity in the development of the Queen Bee phenomenon: especially women who
reported relatively low levels of gender identification when they started their career and
who reported having experienced high levels of gender discrimination were also found
to currently define themselves in relatively masculine and highly committed terms while
simultaneously being critical of the career commitment of other women. In this way,
these women emphasized a discrepancy between themselves and other women. These
results suggest that women who show evidence of the Queen Bee phenomenon do
not do so because of their inherent predisposition to compete with other women, but
because they see this as a way to pursue their ambitions in sexist organizational cultures.
Limitations and suggestions for future research
Although this study is the first to provide evidence for the social identity explanation
of the Queen Bee phenomenon in a real-life sample of women in senior positions in
the Dutch workforce, one obvious limitation of the current study is the correlational
nature of the data. We took care in ruling out alternative explanations of our findings
by showing that women’s gender identification at career start was unrelated to the
Experienced sexism and the Queen Bee
level of gender discrimination they reported, their demographic background variables
or job outcomes. However, although theoretically less likely, we cannot rule out the
possibility of reversed causality. For example, it is possible that relationships between
experiencinggenderdiscrimination andindicators ofthe QueenBee phenomenoncould
when they stereotype other women and present themselves in a masculine fashion.
This would mean that a masculine self-presentation and gender stereotyping other
women would ironically lead women to feel they are the target of gender discrimination
rather than that they avoid being a target of gender discrimination. However, given the
moderation by gender identification that we found, reverse causation would also mean
that behaviour associated with the Queen Bee phenomenon only leads to increased
experienced discrimination among low, but not high identifiers. Apart from the fact
that it is difficult to explain why this would be the case, this is at odds with previous
work that shows that low identifiers are the least likely to become the target of prejudice
Major, Quinton, & Schmader, 2003). This previous work also contests a retrospective
bias explanation, that is that women who currently show signs of the Queen Bee
phenomenon strategically report both lower initial identification and higher levels of
experienced gender discrimination in order to justify their current success. However,
given the positive correlations between gender identification and reports of gender
discrimination found in previous work, we think that strategic concerns would lead
women with low gender identification to deny rather than admit to the existence of
gender discrimination. As such, we feel that the most plausible causal path is the one
that was tested in the current study. Now that the current study found evidence for
these relations in a correlational field study among women in senior positions, further
experimental or longitudinal research can more unambiguously establish the causal
direction of the relationship between gender identification at career start, experienced
gender discrimination, and the development of the Queen Bee phenomenon.
Since the current analysis explains the Queen Bee phenomenon as a consequence
of socio-contextual variables rather than pre-existing gender differences, this analysis
is not limited to successful women in sexist organizational settings. The same analysis
can be applied to members of other devalued minorities (e.g., ethnic minorities, gays,
individuals from low socio-economic backgrounds) in other intergroup settings (e.g.,
educational settings) who strive to achieve positions that are uncommon for members
of their group (see, for example the work by Fordham & Ogbu, 1986 on ‘acting White’).
Whenever minority group members strive for positive outcomes in contexts in which
others communicate low expectations of them due to their group membership, there
is an opportunity for them to increase their success by agreeing with these stereotypes
while simultaneously communicating why they are better. Importantly, our analysis
suggests that this behaviour is not due to their stable individual dispositions, but rather
to the context that limits their prospect of achieving success while simultaneously
maintaining their attachment with their group.
One might question whether it is problematic when ambitious women adapt to inhos-
pitable organizational contexts by becoming more masculine and setting themselves
apart from other women. The current results could also be interpreted as showing the
adaptability of women by fulfilling their aspirations and achieving individual mobility
Belle Derks et al.
even in organizations that hold negative stereotypes about their gender. Moreover,
it also questions the common notion that women should take care of each other in
the workplace, while men are expected to compete and pursue their personal career
aspirations (Mavin, 2008). Nevertheless, previous research suggests that Queen Bee
behaviour, although perhaps beneficial for the career success of some women, can have
quite detrimental consequences for women at an earlier career stage. First, the negative
gender stereotypes expressed by Queen Bees affect the career opportunities of other
women within the organization because negative gender stereotypes communicated by
female sources are less likely to be identified as gender bias and will therefore remain
unchallenged (Baron et al., 1991). Second, studies suggest that female employees will
look to female superiors for inspiration and to estimate their own chances of achieving
success (Buunk & van der Laan, 2002; Lockwood, 2006; Ragins & McFarlin, 1990;
Scandura & Williams, 2001). In order for female managers to function as inspirational
role models, their female subordinates need to be able to identify with them and feel
similar to them (Ensher & Murphy, 1997; Lockwood, 2006). This is less likely to happen
when female managers actively distance themselves from other women and present
themselves in a masculine way (Ziegler & Stoeger, 2008). As a consequence, female
employees who are managed by Queen Bees are less likely to find role models to show
them how to achieve their ambitions. Thus, although Queen Bee behaviour may be a
successful way to improve the career outcomes for some women, at the same time it is
behaviour remains an individual level strategy that might reinforce rather than challenge
gender-based inequality (Ellemers & Van Laar, 2010).
In recent years, businesses have invested effort in improving organizational success
by diversifying the gender and ethnic make-up of their organization. The current results
have important implications for the outcomes of these diversity initiatives. Companies
that wish to enhance the output of their efforts to improve the number and relative
status of underrepresented groups within their organization, would do well to focus not
only on simple measures that increase the number of women or ethnic minorities in top
positions (e.g., strict targets, affirmative action programmes), but should also put effort
into changing the organization’s culture regarding these groups at work. The results
suggest that, as long as the organizational culture remains biased, putting some isolated
token individuals in positions of power does not necessarily improve opportunities for
other members of the same social group within the organization. Within companies that
communicate a negative opinion about minorities or women, representatives of these
groups placed in positions of power, especially those low identified with their group, are
likely to align their opinions with the negative expectations of their group held within
the company in order to prove their own worth and secure their personal position. As
such, when salient stereotypes induce minorities to show that they are better than other
members of their group, simply increasing the number of minority representatives in
top positions will not improve opportunities for these groups as a whole.
Instead, the current results suggest the importance of diminishing gender discrim-
ination and prejudice as a feature of organizational cultures and increasing the value
attached to gender diversity. In companies that ensure that women can achieve career
success without having to forego their gender identification, women in senior positions
are more likely to become inspiring role models who have positive attitudes about
the potential of their female subordinates. In companies that succeed in improving
the respect communicated to female employees, it no longer matters whether women
Experienced sexism and the Queen Bee
women will aim to achieve success without becoming Queen Bees. As indicated by the
results of the current study, low identifiers differ from high identifiers in their opinions
about other women only in work settings that communicate a low regard for women.
This implies that reducing gender bias in organizational contexts is likely to improve
the opinions of less identified women about other women as in those contexts low
identifiers have no need to differentiate themselves from other women to reduce social
Previous research on the Queen Bee phenomenon has often been interpreted as
suggesting that it is not men but women who stand in the way of the advancement
of women in the workplace. The results of the current study present a more nuanced
view of this interpretation. By demonstrating the relation between experienced gender
discrimination, social identity, and the Queen Bee phenomenon, the current study
suggests that it is not specifically men or women that stand in the way of improving
work outcomes for women, but that it is the pervasiveness of organizational gender
stereotypes that obstruct women in reaching career success and make it more likely that
low identified women turn against their own group.
We thank Serena Does, Daan Scheepers, Tomas St˚ ahl, Frank de Wit, and Maarten Zaal for
their valuable comments on a previous draft of the manuscript.
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Received 17 December 2009; revised version received 13 July 2010