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'Queen Bee' stereotype in the workplace is a rarity

Jing Wang Herman has plenty of experience as the lone female in the office. Currently the CEO for the USA operations of GetTaxi.com, Wang Herman previously racked up eight years on Wall Street, landed on a Forbes 30 Under 30 list - and earned her taxi driver’s license.

“I’m always in male-dominated environments. I don’t even realize it anymore,” she said.

As she climbed the corporate ladder, her mentors have been men, a fact of little consequence, said Wang Herman, whose tech company makes an app to hail and pay taxis. “To me, mentoring is gender neutral.”

Some might wonder if she’s a Queen Bee, a powerful, conniving woman who undermines competing females.

The answer is no, according to the co-authors of the 1974 study that coined the term “Queen Bee,” which they said has mutated into an outdated, sexist and negative stereotype.

As more women rise in the ranks of business, research indicates they are doing more mentoring, especially of other women. And while some say there is a difference between male and female mentoring styles, many like Wang Herman say it doesn’t matter.

“There were few women in senior positions at JP Morgan and Bear Stearns,” and she wasn’t mentored by any of them, Wang Herman said. “But I never felt undermined. They had to fight very hard to get where they are. It was gender neutral.”

Yet the Queen Bee syndrome still gets a lot of press.

The Wall Street Journal was the latest publication to misuse the Queen Bee term, the researchers said. “I was really surprised and frankly kind of appalled by it,” said Carol Tavris, a social psychologist who was a co-author of the original study for Psychology Today with Graham Staines and Toby Jayaratne.

“I think people misunderstood our term” said Jayaratne, who is now a research psychologist in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. “What they missed was the political climate and the sexist climate that created it. We wanted to focus on the atmosphere that created it.”

The term no longer means what it once did. “I hate it,” Tavris said.

“There is never any ‘King Rat’ syndrome,” Tavris said. “An angry man is an angry man, but an angry woman is a bitch.”

Queen Bees do exist but they are rare, said Jayaratne and Tavris.

“For every Queen Bee, there are a thousand women mentoring women,” Tavris said.

“The stereotype of the Queen Bee has gotten out of control, and it is no good.” Jayaratne said. “Most women do support other women and they do mentor.”

These days, women are more likely to be mentors than “Mean Girl”-type Queen Bees, according to a study published in June by Catalyst, a research and advisory group that seeks to improve workplaces by advancing more women into leadership roles.  The study concluded that 65 percent of women who received career development support in turn worked to develop new talent, while only 56 percent of men did the same.

“Not all women are developing women, but neither are all men. The main difference? When men don’t, it doesn’t reflect poorly on their gender. But when women don’t, it becomes an indictment of ALL women,” Catalyst CEO Ilene Lang wrote when the research was published.

Donna Bookout-Coe, the first woman president of the California Tow Truck Association, said she once experienced the wrath of a Queen Bee, but it was while she was in her 30s running the typing pool of a law firm. There was one secretary who basically appointed herself office manager, Bookout-Coe said. “She was considered the Queen Bee. Everyone was afraid of her.” That happened in the early 1970s, around the time of the original Queen Bee study.

Bookout-Coe left the law firm in 1977 and started her own tow truck company, where she occasionally encountered more traditional types of sexism, she said. In those days, there was only one other female tow truck company owner in the state, who Bookout-Coe credits as a mentor.  “I have been sought out by a lot of other women in the industry for advice,” Bookout-Coe said. “The more of us who are out there, the stronger we get.”

Catherine Connors, editor in chief of Disney Interactive Family, said most of her mentors were men because she started her career in academia focusing on political philosophy.  Mentoring in her current job is a more of a “collegially supportive relationship” with the employees, who are mostly women.

Connors was asked if all women in power should be obligated, even more so than men, to mentor other women. “I would be critical of someone who didn’t support other women,” Connors said. But she was quick to point out there is a range of ways women can mentor, including one-one-one guidance to two or three junior employees. However, “I don’t think everyone’s cut out for that,” she said. 

Sometimes it’s enough just to be a good role model, Connors said. “We don’t have enough role models,” she said.