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DTCI: 'Queen bee syndrome' in the workplace – true or false?

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dtci-thompson-stacyAnyone who has watched “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Working Girl,” or “Melrose Place” has seen the female boss who has worked her way to the top while undermining other women who can only wish they were that boss. This type of woman now even has her own name: the queen bee. Backed by years of research, the “queen bee syndrome,” which suggests women in positions of authority will treat female subordinates more critically than the male, has long held prominence in society.

If you are a woman trying to make it to the top of a law firm, can you expect a higher-ranking female attorney to take you under her wing? Do you need to undermine other women in order to advance or treat other women as threats?

Some studies have found that women often fail to help other women break the glass ceiling. These studies have suggested that female executives may fear that another woman with lesser qualifications could reinforce negative stereotypes about women. The studies have also suggested that a woman may feel threatened by highly qualified women and worry that they may be more qualified, competent or popular with co-workers. These studies have also found some female executives wanted to avoid appearing biased toward other women, so they did not advocate for them.

In an essay titled, “Why I’d Rather Work for a Man than a Woman,” Forbes contributor Susannah Breslin suggested that women should avoid other women in the workplace altogether. Breslin wrote:

“Tired of women-on-women jealousy at work? Nip that in the bud by eliminating women from the equation. Most women have had an experience with a female superior who wouldn’t let her advance because the woman in power was threatened. You might be insulted men see you as less of a threat, but that may be what enables you to climb up the ladder.”

However, a recent study found that the queen bee stereotype is not as prevalent as some think it is. This study showed that women are actually more likely than other men to help female coworkers advance their careers. It suggested that women do not view female subordinates as competition to be cut down. Rather, women view less-experienced female coworkers as potential talent and are more likely than men to develop that talent through mentorship. The study also showed that women who received career support went on to return the favor to the next generation.

Do women help or hinder each other in the workplace? Are female attorneys mentoring and developing the next generation of female attorneys? Are female attorneys helping other female attorneys advance? Whatever your opinion regarding the queen bee syndrome, law firms should consider these studies when it comes to attracting and holding on to a diverse group of attorneys. Attorneys should be taking an active interest in developing new talent. Almost all of the studies show that when men and women take an active interest in developing both male and female talent, everyone benefits. Of interest to most, some studies have even shown that both men and women who developed protégés actually earned more money than those who did not.•

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Ms. Thompson is a partner in the Bloomington firm of Clendening Johnson & Bohrer and is a member of the DTCI board of directors. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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  2. Seventh Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood has stated in “The Rule of Law in Times of Stress” (2003), “that neither laws nor the procedures used to create or implement them should be secret; and . . . the laws must not be arbitrary.” According to the American Bar Association, Wood’s quote drives home this point: The rule of law also requires that people can expect predictable results from the legal system; this is what Judge Wood implies when she says that “the laws must not be arbitrary.” Predictable results mean that people who act in the same way can expect the law to treat them in the same way. If similar actions do not produce similar legal outcomes, people cannot use the law to guide their actions, and a “rule of law” does not exist.

  3. Linda, I sure hope you are not seeking a law license, for such eighteenth century sentiments could result in your denial in some jurisdictions minting attorneys for our tolerant and inclusive profession.

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