The time I met my first (and worst) Queen Bee
“B-beautiful,” I sputtered nervously, pointing at a massive painting of white hydrangeas nestled in a bright, fuchsia background. It nearly covered an entire side of her extra-long executive cubicle. No one got an office, not even executives. She must be into hydrangeas, I thought. Okay, focus.
I had never met her before, but I was the new marketing leader for her sales team. She was the executive. The top dog. The Grand Poobah, i.e., kind of a big deal.
Something felt off the second I rounded the corner of her cubicle for our first meet-and-greet, though. Complimenting something, anything (massive paintings included) felt like a safe option. That usually breaks the ice. Right?
“Yep,” she barked with a loud sigh and a scratch of her blond pixie cut. She looked me up and down and her eyes zeroed in on mine without relenting. My nervousness increased exponentially. I almost fell over as I claimed one of the two chairs in front of her desk. I was terrified, no joke.
“Is this, um, is this still an okay time to meet?” I mumbled, feeling sweat start to form in uncomfortable places.
“Great! Nice to meet you. I’m Molly.”
“Yep.” Does she say anything other than “yep”?
“Shawn, right?” Getting desperate here.
“Great. So, I’ll be dedicated to your sales segment. What are your priorities? And what challenges are you having right now that I can assist with?” I honestly don’t even remember what questions I asked her as my mind felt like it was on the 416-foot drop Kingda Ka ride at Six Flags Great Adventure. Front row, no less.
“You can work with my sales directors.”
The conversation quickly died out from there, no surprise. I skedaddled out of her cube as fast as I could. I can small talk with the best of ’em, but I crashed and burned on this one. I thanked her for her time and figured she’d had a bad day.
I didn’t realize what sort of trouble I had stirred up until an email dinged from my boss later that afternoon. Subject line: Let’s chat.
I figured I may as well get my fate over with as quickly as possible. I trekked over to his cube with a smile on my face five minutes later.
“Hi, Molly. Um, yeah. Did you have a meeting with Shawn earlier today?”
Shit. “Yes, I did.”
I wasn’t about to stoop to Shawn’s “yep” level.
“Okay, I just received an email from her that you were unprepared, unprofessional and kept repeating yourself in the meeting. She doesn’t want you dedicated to her sales segment anymore. What happened?”
Whoa?! She doesn’t want me dedicated to her sales segment anymore? Talk about an extreme reaction… to ONE meeting! The contents of her email caught me off guard. I mean, I knew the meeting was bad. But I didn’t think it was “fire her” bad. Accusing me of being unprofessional and repetitive was just plain wrong, too. She was the one who had “yep” on repeat. But denial wasn’t going to get me anywhere. The words of an executive would always trump the level I was at.
The thing that irked (and confused) me the most about what my boss had shared was that Shawn was a successful woman executive. I repeat, woman executive. With so few woman executives at said company, wasn’t it in her DNA to help other women out? Make sure more women make it to the top? Why send such an evil email to my boss? After ONE ten-minute (maybe even eight-minute) meeting, no less.
And what about following the words of Madeleine Albright, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”? Maybe Shawn was snoozing when Madeleine spoke that infamous piece of advice. I even complimented her painting, doesn’t that count for something? Bonus points for noticing the hydrangeas, perhaps? I apologized and let my boss know I’d make it right. Little did I know, it’s pretty darn tough to make something right when you have absolutely no idea what you even did wrong.
My mentor spelled out the harsh truth of what had happened to me a couple weeks later. (I was young and just getting started in my career, people.) “You were sabotaged, Molly.” Sabotaged. The word felt like something straight out of a James Bond movie, no place for corporate America. (I repeat: I was young and just getting started in my career, people.) Why would someone I didn’t even know sabotage me? What a shitty thing to do. The more questions I asked, the madder I got. What in the heck was Shawn’s problem?!
Fast-forward a few months, I learned Shawn the Saboteur had recommended someone else (a man) for the role. But my boss picked me instead. Shawn “no likey” his selection, and rather than trying to get to know me, she retaliated. She SABOTAGED me… dun dun duuun!
Le sigh… the successful female executive wanted a man (a man who still works for her to this day — thank you LinkedIn for keeping me updated) in my position. And refused to support me even after I got the offer fair and square. Luckily, I had limited interaction with Shawn after that not-so-glorious first meeting. I took her advice of working with her sales directors … and ran.
It’s important to note that I’ve worked with some incredible women coworkers and executives throughout my career. And said women have opened many career doors for me. The good definitely outweighs the bad. But Shawn was my first … and worst Queen Bee. And her sting hurt like hell.
For those wondering why the heck I’m talking about insects, Queen Bee refers to a powerful woman who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female. Marianne Cooper explained in her article, Why Women (Sometimes) Don’t Help Other Women, that “the ultimate Queen Bee is the successful woman who instead of using her power to help other women advance, undermines her women colleagues.” Based on my limited interaction, it’s safe to throw Shawn into that category.
Olga Khazan stresses a similar view in her article, Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work? According to Olga, Queen Bees like Shawn, “learned the hard way that the way to succeed in the workplace is to make sure that people realize they are not like other women. It’s not something about these women. It is the way they have learned to survive in the organization.” Shawn wasn’t like other women, and she certainly wasn’t like me. She not only survived but also THRIVED for her actions.
So how does this happen? Why would a woman want to undermine another woman? According to Marianne Cooper, “Queen Bee behaviors are triggered in male dominated environments in which women are devalued. This kind of response is not even unique to women. It’s actually an approach used by many marginalized groups to overcome damaging views held about their group. Social distancing then is a strategy many individuals use who are trying to avoid, escape, or navigate the social disadvantage of the group to which they belong.” Simply put, us ladies are still trying to dig ourselves out of a gosh darn insecurity hole. And those Queen Bee stings are a coping mechanism for feeling undervalued or disadvantaged.
I’m thankful for Queen Bee articles as it’s often an area of workplace bullying that’s left unexplored. A woman could never bully another woman. Female power! Men are the real problem, they say. As I’ve learned through Shawn and others, asshole is a gender-neutral term. And depending on the individual, the asshole can really come out when it comes to career advancement… or feelings of insecurity.
A recent study has attempted to negate the existence of Queen Bees, claiming that men’s determination to retain control is to blame for a lack of women in top roles. Per the research team, “Women face an implicit quota, whereby firms seek to maintain a small number of women on their top management team, usually only one. While firms gain legitimacy from having women in top management, the value of this legitimacy declines with each woman.” It’s tough to argue with the report’s logic when most major companies still have a limited presence of women on their executive leadership teams. But based on my experience, I think it goes deeper than that. Social distancing is still alive and well. Women at all levels, especially top levels, can do a better job of helping one another, even if they feel undervalued or disadvantaged. Simple things like speaking up, recommending women for tough roles, and championing for one another go a long way in suffocating this so-called “implicit quota.”
Marianne Cooper also recommends we identify highly as a woman to squash the Queen Bee syndrome. She stresses that, “Women who have experienced gender discrimination but who more strongly identified with their gender don’t react to such bias by trying to distance themselves from other women. Instead, a study found that policewomen who highly identified as women responded to gender discrimination with an increased desire to create more opportunities for other women.” Queen Bees start to die as we…open doors for one another. Create opportunities for one another. Support each other. That’s the right way to respond to gender discrimination. And, boy, do I like the sound of that.
Now that I’ve reached an executive-level, I try to do everything I can to promote and support other women. Kevin Spacey said it best: “If you’ve done well, it’s your obligation to spend a good portion of your time sending the elevator back down.” Yes, it’s my obligation. Our obligation, successful people (looking at you, Shawn’s of the world).
The good news is that there’s quite a bit of evidence to show that women are helping other women. For example, gender discrimination and harassment decline when women work with a greater percentage of women. Women who report to female supervisors receive greater family and organizational support than they do when working for male supervisors. Also, the gender pay gap declines as the number of women in management positions increases. Lastly, a 2012 study reported that 73% of the female mentors from the survey were helping to mentor and develop other women, while only 30% of the male mentors were doing the same.
“If you’ve done well, it’s your obligation to spend a good portion of your time sending the elevator back down.” — Kevin Spacey
Shawn didn’t quite send the elevator back down, but I learned a lot. One of the biggest learnings was that I need to take more time getting to know the ins and outs of a colleague before meeting with him or her. I could have saved myself a lot of pain and frustration had I dug around and found out what Shawn was like before that oh-so-fun kickoff meeting. I may not even have met with her had I snooped around with a few of her sales directors beforehand.
Either way, had I been in her shoes, I would have recommended the best person for the role but supported whomever they selected — even if it wasn’t the person I had recommended.
I would have given more than one-word answers in the initial meeting.
I would have been kind.
I would have had empathy for someone new to a role (as starting a new job is one of the most stressful life situations).
I would have identified as a woman (I like bright colors, remember?).
I would have been polite.
I would have asked, “How can I help?”
I would have introduced that person to my team.
I would have suggested we meet regularly so that person would be set up for success.
Finally, I would have cared… because caring is always the right thing to do.
Take that, Queen Bees.