What explains this generational difference? Could it be something about the environment in which the older women pursued their careers that elicited a certain harshness toward their women students? For that older generation, it was extremely rare for a woman to climb the ladder and become a full professor. By the time the younger women arrived, it was much more common. Thus, perhaps it was something about the context in which older women rose up the ranks (fewer women, more barriers, more sexism) that explained their behavior.
Subsequent research has confirmed just that. Queen Bee behaviors are not reflective of some Mean Girl gene lurking in women’s DNA. Rather, to the degree they exist, Queen Bee dynamics are triggered by gender discrimination.
Specifically, studies find that such behaviors emerge when two dynamics come together: gender bias and a lack of gender solidarity, for lack of a better term. When women for whom being a woman is not a central aspect of their identity experience gender bias, Queen Bee behavior emerges.
Here’s why: For women with low levels of gender identification—who think their gender should be irrelevant at work and for whom connecting with other women is not important—being on the receiving end of gender bias forces the realization that others see them first and foremost as women. And because of negative stereotypes about women, like that they are less competent than men, individual women can be concerned that their career path may be stunted if they are primarily seen as just a woman and therefore not a good fit for leadership.
To get around these kinds of gendered barriers, these women try to set themselves apart from other women. They do this by pursuing an individual strategy of advancement that centers on distancing themselves from other women. One way they do this is through displaying Queen Bee behaviors such as describing themselves in more typically masculine terms and denigrating other women (“I’m not like other women. I’ve always prioritized my career”).
The point is, it’s not the case that women are inherently catty. Instead, 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. For example, research has found that some gay men try to distance themselves from stereotypes about gays being effeminate by emphasizing hyper-masculine traits and holding negative beliefs about effeminate gays. 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.
While social distancing can enable an individual from an underrepresented group to advance, it does a disservice to the group as a whole because it can legitimize inequalities. When a woman expresses a stereotypical view about another woman, it’s not seen as a sexist statement but rather as an unbiased assessment, since there is a tendency to believe that individuals cannot be biased against members of their own group. But they often are. Indeed, women too can be misogynists. Thus, social distancing behaviors can reproduce larger inequalities.