Are There Black 'Queen Bees'?

In many ways, women of color defy the label often given to female bosses considered "catty."

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

This article is a response to Olga Khazan’s Atlantic article “Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work?

In a recent Atlantic article, Olga Khazan examined the finding that the longer a woman has been in the workforce, the less likely she is to want her boss to be a woman. One possible explanation Khazan discusses—and this isn’t settled—is that women fear their female superiors will cut them down in the workplace; this happens because, the thinking goes, female higher-ups are eager to distance themselves from other women in male-dominated workplaces, where their gender might seem like an impediment to career advancement. The existence of these “queen bees,” the research cited in Khazan’s article suggests, seems to be driven by a lack of female representation in the workplace.

In trying to better understand these dynamics, it’s important to note that the academic literature on queen bees focuses, almost exclusively, on white women. Which leaves the question: Does this same set of theories apply to black women and other women of color, especially considering that they are even more likely to be underrepresented at work?

One reason it’s hard to assign the queen-bee label to women of color is that they make up such a small proportion of female executives (let alone executives of any gender). While research on black female leadership is scant, the existing literature is clear on at least one thing: Black women ascend to the upper echelons of corporations less frequently than their white counterparts. Whereas white women hold 4.4 percent of CEO positions, black women hold a mere 0.2 percent.

But numerical underrepresentation isn’t the only reason the label of queen bee doesn’t quite seem to fit black women; the biases that women of color face are different from the ones white women face—and, based on Khazan’s article, it’s the latter that appear to have a role in a lot of queen-bee behavior. In my work as a social psychologist researching the science of diversity, I’ve found that when people think about black executives, they tend to visualize black men. When they think about female executives, they tend to visualize white women. That leaves black women in a sort of corporate limbo. One upshot of this is that black women usually have more leeway to be assertive and direct, because people do not associate them as strongly with the “more feminine” traits that come up in the theoretical framework Khazan discusses. This discrepancy may mean that a black woman’s blunt comment may be received as more palatable than the same comment coming from a white woman. (At the same time, less helpfully, black women are not as likely to be thought of as cooperative problem solvers, compared to white women.)

In some small way, these perceptions can work to black women’s advantage. A recent study conducted by the management professors Robert Livingston, Ashley Rosette, and Ella Washington showed that black women who exhibit dominant, assertive behavior are conferred higher leadership status than white women and black men who behave similarly.

But black women are still disadvantaged by these biases in the long run. Those of them in leadership positions are likely quite familiar with the stereotype of the “angry black woman.” They are also likely aware that having such a stereotype assigned to them, particularly in a mostly white, male-dominated setting, could be disastrous for their careers. That can lead black women who have made their way to the top of a company to focus on softening criticism and de-escalating conflict. According to a 2015 report from the diversity-minded nonprofit Center for Talent Innovation, black women are more likely than white women to say that downplaying anger and conflict is critical to their professional advancement. It’s taxing work monitoring and dodging several layers of stereotypes, not to mention while doing one’s job—perhaps this balancing act explains to an extent why, in the report, 44 percent of black women reported feeling stalled in their careers, compared to 30 percent of white women.

There’s another reason black women in leadership positions might defy the queen-bee stereotype. According to the same 2015 report, 42 percent of black women, versus 7 percent of white women, said that they hoped to put some of their power as leaders toward the good of their communities. Perhaps after encountering obstacles as they made their way to the top of the corporate hierarchy, higher-up women of color are more likely to focus on helping younger women rather than squeezing them out. But whatever the reason, the label of queen bee seems much less applicable to this big-tent approach to leadership.

These analyses are just initial attempts at trying to understand how a phenomenon talked about with respect to mostly white women does or doesn’t apply to other women. The truth is, with so few female leaders of color to study, the picture remains woefully incomplete.