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How to deal with a Queen Bee in the workplace

For decades prior to the introduction of the 1996 South African Constitution women have been fighting for their rights and for equal treatment in the workplace.

 The South African legislative and policy environment, and more specifically the devotion to equality as is encapsulated in the spirit of the Constitution, was considered to be a victory for women as it resulted in calls for equality in the workplace – for female employees to be treated equally to their male counterparts. 

However, this was only a partial victory for gender equality in the workplace as the remaining obstacle to gender equality – the behaviours and attitudes of females in positions of authority who try to hinder the growth of their female counterparts – still existed. This phenomenon, known as the Queen Bee Syndrome, brings into question whether we, as women, are each other’s own worst enemies.

Queen bee

The Queen Bee Syndrome describes a woman in a position of power who views or treats her female subordinates more critically than their male counterparts in an attempt to protect her hard-earned status in an environment dominated by men. It is such a woman, occupying a senior or authoritative position in a predominantly male workplace, who does everything within her power to prevent other women from reaching positions of power.

Whilst the examples of such conduct are endless, some examples of workplace bullying, by a queen bee include the following:

  1. Excessively harsh and/or critical of the work performance of a female colleague;
  2. Insulting or belittling a female colleague, often in the presence of others;
  3. Spreading false rumours and/or accusations about a female colleague;
  4. Competing with a female colleague for recognition and benefits;
  5. Taking credit for the work completed by a female colleague;
  6. Accusing a female colleague of wrongdoing.

This behaviour is tantamount to workplace bullying and, more specifically, gender-specific bullying and has hindered the growth for female employees to aspire to positions of power.

Whilst this phenomenon does not apply to all women in powerful positions, many females have been victims of such behaviour, failing to react appropriately and merely continuing to suffer in silence in the hope that eventually such behaviour will cease. However, this passive behaviour on the part of the victim does not protect the victim’s interests and only perpetuates the power held by the queen bee in question. Therefore, it is important to consider possible avenues through which this syndrome, as a form of bullying, can be addressed.  

How to deal with a queen bee

The first avenue that should be considered is the implementation for internal workplace policies to prevent bullying. A manner in which these policies can be affected is for employers to educate both their managers and employees on workplace behaviours, and to establish procedures to report and investigate allegations of workplace bullying. Such procedures must ensure confidentiality and implement innovative remedies to combat workplace bullying. By enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on workplace bullying, victims are afforded an opportunity to exercise their rights in the workplace and the perpetuation of workplace bullying is actively alleviated. 

However, the expectation that internal policies will be implemented in every workplace is both far-fetched and unlikely. For that reason, a second avenue of legal intervention should be considered.  Section 6(1) of the Employment Equity Act provides for the prohibition of unfair discrimination on the grounds of, inter alia, “gender” and “sex”. A harassed employee, who is the victim of workplace bullying by a queen bee, may consequently rely on this provision to bring a claim against, and hold liable an employer, for the harassment of its employees by other employees. This is subject to the provisio that the requirements of Section 60, which creates a defence for employers, are met. Legal interventions assist with defining particular grievances and providing victims with a way to be compensated.

In conclusion, regardless of the avenue victims of workplace bullying choose to address the perpetrator’s conduct, silence can no longer be a viable option. We, as females in the workplace, have a responsibility to reduce existing barriers for female employment, clipping the wings of women who abuse their power and create further barriers for female employment. Combating this form of workplace bullying will ensure our full victory in combating male dominated workplaces.