In defence of the the career ‘Queen Bee’

Two Young Women in Front of the Computer TalkingOne of the most frequent complaints I hear from audiences of young women is that the senior women above them don’t mentor or support them enough.  While I understand their frustration at climbing the ladder in male dominated fields, when questioned they admit that not every male boss they ever had was supportive. While I wish we lived in a world where every senior woman offered more support to every junior women, the truth is: there is just not that many senior women to go around for every woman who’d like help and of those who are great mentors. These women are busy; speaking at Women’s Networks, being wheeled out at diversity events in addition to the day job of competing with their male colleagues. Plus, the more they advocate for junior women, the more it draws attention to their ‘otherness’ – something they have usually worked their whole career to help the men look past.

At Female Breadwinners, we think we simply expect these women to be more nurturing, more helpful – perfect advocates and mentors. Our standards are much higher than what we expect in male leaders. A Washington Post article on ‘Queen Bee’ CEOs get scrutiny and flak while ‘king wasps’ get a free pass, commented, “If they [female executives] are too tough, too masculine, they’re Queen Bees. If they’re too soft, too feminine, they’re ineffective leaders. Deemed either likable or competent, they’re rarely judged “just right.”

Women in leadership deal with these double standard by often going to different extremes. Some turn into ‘Queen Bees’ – women who have sacrificed to get where they are, worked harder than any man and expect aspiring others to do the same. If they display little sympathy for flexible working or full maternity leave, for example, they aren’t deemed to be ‘realistic role models’. I routinely hear younger women harshly judge senior women as not having the kind of lives they aspire to. This may be very true, but they rarely speak ill of male bosses who display the same inflexibility in their attitudes. Men are often ‘forgiven’ for these attitudes, as it’s too often what we have come to expect. On the other had, we unfairly ‘expect’ women to be better than that. But the double bind means these women can’t easily be both tough and soft in the same environment.

At Female Breadwinners, we work with companies companies to manage these perceptions by increasing the number of women in leadership roles. The more women become normalized in positions of power, the more likely society is to accept them on their own terms.

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