Queen Bees?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 1, 2009 11:11 am

The second panelist from Saturday’s STS conference was Christine Luk from Arizona State University who’s talk was entitled: Engaging Women in Science and Technology Policy-making: Beyond the Paradox of Under-representation of Women

Instead of discussing the usual challenges women face, Christine is interested in why the gender gap persists despite enhancement of female status and social change.  She began by highlighting regular policy recommendations that support affirmative action and the development of economic incentives for women.  According to Christine, enrolling women in science and technology is not enough because it’s not merely about increasing our headcount.  Rather she suggests we need a more visible role of feminist perspectives.  I agree, yet I’m convinced this is a chicken and egg problem. We must place more bright and capable young ladies in the public eye who break the mold of what we’ve come to expect of a ‘female in S&T’.

devil-wears-prada.pngHowever, what stood out for me during Christine’s talk was the Queen Bee hypothesis which suggests (if I understood correctly) that the limited number of women who do rise in these areas may actually suppress others from doing so.It’s an interesting theory, although I’m not convinced.  In my own field of marine science, ladies are quickly climbing the ranks at record pace, not to mention Jane Lubchenco now heads NOAA.  Furthermore, despite progressive social change, there will likely be a very long lag time for women to rise to visibly prominent roles across fields.  Finally, we cannot hope to achieve gender equality in the S&T workforce under the status quo parameters.  As I’ve written in the past, if we are to encourage women to stay in the system, then the system will need to undergo fundamental changes to accommodate more of us.  I’m not sure whether that’s a practical expectation, or even whether it should be.

As for the queen bee hypothesis, it’s an idea I have not come across until now.  Has anyone experienced this?  The ladies I adore offline and around the blogosphere tend to be overwhelmingly supportive of each other.  Thoughts?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Science Workforce

Comments (17)

  1. I wonder if the “Queen Bee” hypothesis (assuming if it has some limited validity) itself leads to a chicken-and-egg problem; because there are few women in S & T they try to suppress newcomers which in turn discourages newcomers which results in fewer women…

  2. I’m not buying the Queen Bee Hypothesis. It really seems as though the suggestion is that all the sexism is gone, and if women aren’t advancing it’s the fault of women. I find that unlikely given my own experience. I’m always delighted to see more feminist perspectives, but I think we need to see a little more from men,

    And as an aside, I hate the “ladies” usage.

  3. Sheril,

    Following several of your links back, I noticed you eventually hit on the issue of family (having kids, etc). I assume that you consider family planning issues (and by this I mean policies put in place to not penalize individuals who want to have children) as one of the fundamental changes that needs to be undertaken in this area. To this end, I agree with you completely (not that I would have necessarily disagreed with you if you had meant something else). I’m an uncle-to-be, and in discussing the impending birth of my niece/nephew with my pregnant sister I was appalled to find out that while she (a teacher — and a damn good one if I may add) can take up to 8 weeks off post-pregnancy to care for her child, it all comes without pay. That simply won’t do. If this is the norm, and I have no reason to doubt that it isn’t, then IMO it explains, at least in part, just how stacked the deck is against women who want both a career and a family. IIRC, some European countries have enacted laws which allow one or both parents to take extended leave (with pay, and without fear of termination) to care for their newborn children. It would be interesting (at least for me) to see if the gender gap is reduced in these countries, when compared to countries where such laws have not been enacted.

  4. TomJoe wrote:

    I assume that you consider family planning issues (and by this I mean policies put in p lace to not penalize individuals who want to have children) as one of the fundamental changes that needs to be undertaken in this area.

    Yes, family planning is most definitely a large component of the changes I mean. (Though not the only one of course). I’ve spent the past several years observing the drop off firsthand as friends and colleagues transition into other professions as they attempt to balance priorities.

    Kaethe wrote:

    And as an aside, I hate the “ladies” usage.

    I’m not sure why. It describes 1/2 of the adult population.

  5. cesiumclock

    This is off the top of my head, but I don’t see why this couldn’t be possible. If you are a woman in a workplace that’s predominantly male, while you will of course encounter many obstacles, you might also have some advantages (read: little sister complex). If there are other women in the workplace, then you have to compete with them for the few advantages that readily exist.

    I’m not saying it’s a good thing to compete in that way. Quite the opposite, there’s no way (that I can see) to reach equality without joining forces. But it seems possible, even likely.

  6. I’m not sure why. It describes 1/2 of the adult population.

    By traditional usage, only a tiny percentage of the [white, wealthy] female population was accorded that privilege, and never did it apply to females who worked. I suppose it irks me because “behaving like a lady” was a term attached to a very narrow and stereotypical view of femininity that was still rigidly enforced in my younger days. A view distinctly at odds with wearing jeans and running shoes, working in medical research, keeping my last name upon marriage, and being the primary earner for my family.

    Goodness, I’ve become a cranky old lady waving my cane and telling you kids today to keep off my yard. Carry on.

  7. IIRC, some European countries have enacted laws which allow one or both parents to take extended leave (with pay, and without fear of termination) to care for their newborn children. It would be interesting (at least for me) to see if the gender gap is reduced in these countries, when compared to countries where such laws have not been enacted.

    Not that I’m aware of. My brother’s girlfriend is a Ph.D. candidate at a MRU in Germany, and she refuses to even consider children until after her Ph.D. and post-doc, because even though they have to reserve you a place in the lab, you do get mommy-tracked, and you’re behind on the research.

    And as an aside, I hate the “ladies” usage.
    I’m not sure why. It describes 1/2 of the adult population.
    [It] was a term attached to a very narrow and stereotypical view of femininity that was still rigidly enforced in my younger days.

    Don’t worry, it’s still rigidly enforced. Hence, for example:

    Personally, I’d rather work for a man than a woman, with rare exceptions. My female bosses and professors have been bitchy, passive-agressive, and downright insane. OTOH, I’ve had some scarily mysogynistic male bosses. Gee, I guess I just don’t like working for other people.

  8. IMHO both men and women should keep away from having kids until they finish their PhD. But that’s just me; I have certainly seen my share of brave souls who manage to pull off this balancing act.

  9. I want to thank Sheril for bringing up this issue on a public arena. It’s probably not a bad idea to recapture what the “queen been syndrome” entails. According to social psychologist Naomi Ellemers and her colleagues from University of Leiden (http://www.socialsciences.leiden.edu/psychology/organisation/ellemers.jsp), “queen been syndrome” refers to the distancing of the self from the group stereotype which not only involves perceiving the self as a non-prototypical group member, but may also elicit stereotypical views of other in-group members. Ellemers’ research interests center around group dynamics and categorizations of membership. One of the core areas she’s been working on is the social consequences of internal and external group identities. The idea is that the extent to which an individual identifies with a group is the baseline for supporting other members in the group. The argument is not about rivalry among women, but how social actors negotiate individual, collective and professional identities under what contexts and for what purposes. In her study, Ellemers found out that compared to male faculty members (as a control), female faculty members in sciences rated female Ph.D. students as significantly less committed to the organization and to their career than the male students. She argued that the unwillingness to support the disadvantaged may result from their rapid shift in identification from the low to the high status group.

    As true with every other studies in social science, the results yielded from this one is limited due to the sample size and the research settings. I am not claiming universality of the existence of “queen been syndrome”. But I do think we need more empirical evidence to verify or falsify this notion, and personal experiences are important but insufficient sources of data for research purpose. Interestingly, Ellemers’ article was published in 2004 in Brit. J. of Soc. Psy. and there’s basically no discussion in the US ever since. Maybe US researchers don’t communicate with their European counterparts, maybe the topic of women in S&T has lost favor or maybe people don’t want to face counter-evidence that runs against their conventional beliefs and ideological hankering.

  10. Damn you for that link, Courtney, it’s like a hideous time machine.

    I’ve been lucky to work for awesome male and female bosses in recent years, all of whom have recognized that everyone wants to have a life outside of work, regardless of whether or not they have children, parents, or marriageable partners under state law. I’m in favor of a very broad family leave policy. And realistic employment/benefits packages for grad students, who mostly get shafted.

  11. Erasmussimo

    I have a tiny datum to add to the pot. I have on many occasions recommended talented young people (of both genders) to members of my “good old boys” network. On every single occasion I have done so, the good old boy that I contacted was happy to help out the talented young person. Even when they could not provide the direct assistance I requested, they would suggest another person who could handle the task. I have seen no gender-related variations in these effects, other than the fact that the great majority of the people in my “good old boys” network are, in fact, male.

    However, on only two occasions have I been flatly rejected, and they were both cases in which I requested help from a “good old girl” for a young woman. In both cases, I was so stunned by the unexpected response that I stammered out a request for restatement of the rejection, so certain was I that I had misinterpreted the denial. I still recall the words of one such woman: “I just don’t have time to help out every new kid on the block.”

    These are only two anecdotes, and they might be simple flukes. But they are so completely at odds with everything else I have experienced that I consider them noteworthy. And yes, there have been plenty of cases of “good old girls” helping out youngsters of both genders.

  12. Robert Rushing

    I think “ladies” irks some people for the same reason that some other titles (ostensibly of respect) can irk (“young man,” “miss,” or even, under the right circumstances, “sir”): they are almost always used patronizingly, sarcastically or in some other fashion that makes it evident that you are not being accorded respect. I think “ladies” is often used by authority figures when speaking to “misbehaving” younger women, and relatively rarely to address a group of, say, powerful women. It could be that Americans are particularly prone to dismissive or sarcastic usages of titles of respect, since they are in conflict with generally democratic ideals about social organization.

  13. Anna K.

    Erasmussimo: It’s been 15 years since I’ve been in academia, so things might’ve changed, but the women usually ended up with lots of committee work and lots of time spent helping students, to the detriment of their research.

    So that might be the source of not wanting to help out ‘every new kid on the block,’ if a woman is expected to do extended shifts as mentor/nurturer, compared to the men.

  14. Erasmussimo

    Anna, neither of the women who rebuffed my request were academics. Also, I had a nice chat with a female member of my “old boys/girls network” about the Queen Bee phenomenon. She was quite certain that it wasn’t a hypothesis, but a real phenomenon that she had witnessed (although she was never a victim). However, she suspects that there’s a selection effect at work here: the only women who make it to the top are those who are fanatically devoted to their work and are therefore none too willing to help others out.

  15. sunnygrrl

    Ever been on a fishing boat with another (or a few) women? That’s where you’ll find Queen Bee. No other female should receive any attention (even common courtesies) from her males! Unfortunately, I’ve had that experience and have heard its pretty common.

  16. Synergy

    I would definitely reign in on the side of Queen Bee Syndrome. I don’t think I recognized it early on in my career, but maybe that’s because I was a student worker then. Since entering the work world I have experienced and/or witnessed it more than once to varying degrees. It is extremely damaging to other women in the work place, and ironically, the Queen Bee seems hardly to be aware of the way she positions herself in relation to every other female in the workplace…but that may be naivete on my part. She selectively mentors, if she mentors at all, and most often her mentoring choices are females she has absolutely no reason to feel threatened by. If she does feel threatened by another woman, she will, invariably, use any and all means at her disposal to reduce that perceived threat. In my experience, the Queen Bee is just another spin on Nurse Ratched.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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