Debunking Queen Bee Syndrome

There is an enduring trope about women being intentionally unsupportive to other women in the workplace. This often plays out as successful women excluding other female peers, treating junior women more harshly than junior men or staying isolated in order to reach a pinnacle of power. Popularly dubbed ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’, this harmful gender stereotype would have us believe that this phenomenon is a cause of gender inequality in the workplace and a key reason why there are still so few women in senior leadership and the C-suite.

On the surface, research would suggest a kernel of this stereotype may be true. The landmark 2004 study that vaulted the term ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’ into everyday vernacular examined the underrepresentation of women in academia by looking at doctoral candidates. Whilst they found no gender differences in work commitment or satisfaction, they found faculty members of all genders perceived female students as less committed. Female faculty members were the group that most strongly supported this perception. This study was replicated in other countries with similar results over the years and the original study was conducted again in 2020 with no change in results.

Outside of the academic career ladder, other studies have reinforced these results in other sectors. One recent Harvard University study found that women are more competitive with other women than men are with other men. Another study showed women tend to judge each other more harshly than they judge men. And whilst these behaviours have been attributed to competition for resources and wanting acceptance into the dominant group, it becomes all too easy to adopt a reductive, incomplete and ultimately untrue narrative that women are preventing other women from going into positions of power.

So what can these behaviours be attributed to?

‘Queen Bee’ behaviour is a reaction to gender inequality, and not a cause. Far from putting blame on women for perpetuating harmful behaviours, this phenomenon speaks to the structural and systemic inequalities that women continue to face in the workplace and in society.

Internalised double standards of how women should behave and perceptions about gender and leadership aptitude reinforces this. There are higher expectations on women than men to be seen as supportive and to take on non-promotable work, and women are perceived negatively when they don't conform to these expectations. Conversely, when women do exhibit these supportive behaviours, it is often not compatible with traditional notions of leadership and may present barriers to advancement.

This is not to excuse harmful behaviours that do exist in the workplace and may be more directed towards a particular group. There are difficult managers and people who exhibit toxic behaviours of all genders, and these behaviours should be immediately addressed. But let’s work to dispel labels such as ‘Queen Bee’ -- a distinctly gendered, derogatory term that undermines and misdirects the work that organisations, industries and society need to focus on as a whole to create equitable, inclusive systems.

At TWF, through our fourteen years of running our Mentoring Programme for Women Leaders, we strive to create a model that cultivates supportive, inclusive leaders through mentoring. We have seen first-hand the incredible impact of women helping women and this community’s influence on the career progression, retention and mental health for women in the workplace. As a society, we need to feature these and other success stories more widely and the supportive community that contributed to their success. As individuals, we can each do our part to model inclusive, supportive behaviours towards people of all genders in the workplace. We need to stop using labels like ‘Queen Bee’ that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and devalue the structural inequalities women face. Instead, we should focus our attention and efforts on targeting systemic barriers preventing women from thriving in the workplace.

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The Women's Foundation