Beware of the Queen Bee

In her Wall Street Journal article, “The Tyranny of the Queen Bees” Peggy Drexler reports that a 2011 American Management Association survey of 1,000 working women found that 95% of them believed another woman at some point in their careers undermined them. Drexler cites a number of other surveys in which women bosses were bullies, and most of the time their targets were other women.

The Queen Bees’ favorite tactics are making snide remarks about another woman’s appearance, holding subordinates to unreasonably high standards, gossiping about them, and generally acting like high school mean girls. Various sources in the article theorize that Queen Bees bully because they are insecure and view up-and-coming women as threats.

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My first reaction was dismay. As a baby boom woman, I have vivid memories of the days when men often disrespected women in the workplace and discriminated against us. How could a woman who’d lived through workplace bias treat another woman so poorly? I expect middle-aged women to know and act better. And I HATE IT when women act out negative stereotypes (catty, bitchy, etc.) Not only is their bad behavior galling, but it also makes it harder for the rest of us to succeed.

But after some reflection, I realized that while I believe Queen Bees exist, and I’ve known people who have been hurt by them, I know far more women who are supportive of other women and willingly mentor younger women.

One friend was a senior leader at a Fortune 500 and she was an active part of a corporate women’s mentoring group. Another friend, a successful business owner, is very generous with her time and advice. In addition to mentoring professional women, she volunteers with organizations that reach out to younger women. My middle-aged coworkers and I are very willing to mentor.

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What’s interesting is that the youngest women in the department (recent grads) seek out several of us for mentoring, while the women who have a little bit experience are fiercely independent and prefer to go their own way. Sometimes I have watched in horror as some of them do things the hardest way possible. But they don’t want advice, so I don’t antagonize them by offering any.

While I believe Queen Bees exist and can wreak havoc, I think generous, supportive women outnumber them. The dynamics of women in the workplace are as varied and complex as women are themselves.

What’s your experience as a mentor or mentee?  Have you ever dealt with a Queen Bee?

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

I’ve never met Kathy Mayer, but we have the Toledo Fire Department in common.

In 1984, she was one of the first women firefighters to join the fire department, where my Dad had been a fire chief until the late 1970’s.Screen shot 2013-03-12 at 10.04.35 PM

According to a recent article in the Toledo Blade, Mayer is retiring after 28 years. Whether she meant to or not, she broke barriers, and she has much to be proud of.

In the early 1980’s, firefighters worked 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Firehouses were a men’s club—the men slept dormitory-style and there was one bathroom. I don’t know what accommodations were made for women firefighters when they came on the department.

From what I know about fire department culture, I’m pretty sure that in the early years, she and the other women put up with a lot of guff and practical jokes at the very least and outright hostility at the worst. And it wasn’t just the firefighters who resisted women firefighters—some of their wives also worried about their presence. Would living in close quarters lead to affairs? During a fire, would their husbands have the same backup from a woman as they would from a man? Although I count myself as a feminist, I think those were legitimate concerns.

However, the women had to pass the same physical tests as the men: rolling a fire hose (heavier than you think, especially with the metal couplings), pounding a sledgehammer on a target more than 50 times, climbing several flights of stairs in firefighting gear while carrying a hose, and also carrying a 100-pound weight (the assumption was, that if the person being rescued weighed a lot more than that, the firefighter would be expected to call for help).

At first, Dad resisted the idea of women firefighters. Although he retired before that issue came up, he still identified with the fire department. But because my sister and I were in our twenties then, and Margo was interested in being a firefighter, he had to rethink his views. Even though he was skeptical, he didn’t want Margo to be discriminated against. But I suspect he was relieved when she decided not to pursue a career as a firefighter.

Despite the inherent challenges, Kathy Mayer persevered.  She joined the fire department, later became a paramedic, and eventually gained the respect of her coworkers. I give her a lot of credit for making a 28-year career out of the fire department.

Like the 1970’s Virginia Slims ad headline said, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Kathy Mayer embodies the vision so many Baby Boom women had when we joined the workforce in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s—women holding their own in nontraditional fields. That is the subject of my memoir-in-progress, Colette’s Legacy.

Because of Title IX . . .

Molly Watters, first female drum major for the University of Minnesota Marching Band, 2006

by Ellen

. . . My friend Marilyn was able to study auto repair at a community college and work as a mechanic at Sears, because she needed a job that paid well.

. . . My niece Katie was offered a scholarship to pole-vault on a college track and field team, something that was unheard of in 1972, when I was a high school senior.

. . . My son Greg was able to meet his girlfriend in the University of Minnesota Marching Band last year. Until 1972, young women weren’t allowed in the U of M’s marching band. In 2006, they had their first drum major (shown above).

Because of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (sometimes known as the Equal Opportunity in Education Act), millions of young women—and young men—have equal access to educational programs and activities:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

The simplicity of the statute is deceptive, but the effects are far-reaching. And surprisingly, there isn’t a word about access to athletics, though that’s what Title IX is best known for.

Besides sports, Title IX also covers access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students (remember when girls were kicked out of school if they were pregnant?), employment, learning environment, math and science, sexual harassment, standardized testing and technology.

Because of Title IX . . . women of my era had more opportunities, and now so do our sons and daughters.

There are numerous famous examples Title IX’s effects:

  • Past U.S. Olympic champions like Mia Hamm, Jackie Joyner Kersee, and Lindsay Vonn
  • The women who are about to become medalists later this month in the 2012 Summer Olympics

But just as important are everyday examples of Title IX’s effects:

Because of Title IX, it is no longer remarkable that women are doctors, lawyers, professors, architects, engineers, software programmers, members of the military, business owners and more.

And that, for me, is remarkable.

I was one of thousands of women who entered the professional workforce in 1979, when the world was changing rapidly. My unpublished memoir COLETTE’S LEGACY traces my personal and professional coming-of-age and puts a personal face on the social changes that transformed a generation.