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This study finds that Queen Bee Syndrome is very much alive at work and this is the guilty party

If you thought Queen Bee Syndrome lived and died when you were in high school, you are wrong. It is very much still alive and probably occurring in your workplace right now.

Queen Bee Syndrome is when a woman in a position of power experiences rude behavior from her coworkers, including demeaning or derogatory remarks, getting ignored or being treated condescendingly. A recent University of Arizona study that was based on three surveys found that it is women who are the main culprits of this incivility towards other women. Mean Girls wasn’t just a movie (and now a Broadway musical!) apparently.

Allison Gabriel, assistant professor of management and organizations in the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management and main author of the study, said in a press release, “Across the three studies, we found consistent evidence that women reported higher levels of incivility from other women than their male counterparts. In other words, women are ruder to each other than they are to men, or than men are to women.

“This isn’t to say men were off the hook or they weren’t engaging in these behaviors,” she noted. “But when we compared the average levels of incivility reported, female-instigated incivility was reported more often than male-instigated incivility by women in our three studies.”

Women are the main culprit for incivility towards other women

So why all the lady harshness? Well, there are a few theories, but Gabriel believes it comes down to competition. At the end of the day, it is always about survival of the fittest whether you are in a cave or a boardroom. “Such women are more likely treated uncivilly by other women at work because they are viewed as violating gender expectations and, perhaps, competing for the same resources,” she wrote in the Journal of Applied Psychology. 

And it isn’t just women in lower positions being rude to more successful women, but also women in the power seats giving up-and-comers a hard time. Selena Rezvani, the VP of Consulting and Research at Be Leaderly, a consulting firm that elevates more women into leadership through assessment, wrote in The Washington Post a few years back that women, especially those at the top levels in their careers, may be experiencing some sort of “sexism amnesia.”

“They may forget what it’s like to be junior, to have little sway, and to be underestimated as a young woman. When they finally do get to the top, they adopt the mindset of those around them and gloss over their past struggles,” Rezvani said. “Even harsher is the sink-or-swim school of thought whose club motto is, ‘I was treated like dirt on my way up, so you should be too.’ ”

When men defy stereotypes, they are rewarded but it’s the opposite for women

Interestingly though, the surveys found that when men displayed warmth and assertiveness, they experienced less of the rude behavior and incivility from other men in the workplace. This means that when men deviate from the norm of stereotypical behaviors they are rewarded for it but when women do it they punished for it and by their own sex no less.

So what now? Do we all just tolerate working in an office full of Regina Georges? The study found that when this kind of behavior exists in an office culture female employees will exit the company, which can add up to a lot of money for a business.

“Companies should be asking, ‘What kinds of interventions can be put in place to really shift the narrative and reframe it?’ ” Gabriel said in the statement. “Making workplace interactions more positive and supportive for employees can go a long way toward creating a more positive, healthier environment that helps sustain the company in the long run.

“Organizations should make sure they also send signals that the ideas and opinions of all employees are valued and that supporting others is crucial for business success — that is, acting assertively should not be viewed negatively, but as a positive way for employees to voice concerns and speak up,” Gabriel added.

Meredith Lepore is the Deputy Editor of Ladders. She is based in New York City and can be reached at mlepore@theladders.com.