Queen Bee Wannabees Sting Senior Women

November 6, 2018

By the time you reach your late fifties you believe you have a reasonable grasp on workplace challenges. Women in my era, Baby Boomers, have worked 40-50 years or more. Some full or part time, some raising children, others not.

Our work ethics are true and stable; work well and honestly, be fair, caring and above all respect others in a diverse environment. The only expectation is to be treated equally and at the end of the day return home feeling valued and worthy of your efforts.


Experience has taught us well, little can faze us and we are there to support each other, or so we think. It didn’t take long to discover this is not always the case following my recent conversation with two female retirees.

Like most of us in the workplace, they wanted to get on with the job in accordance with their employer’s values, objectives and performance expectations.  What they didn’t foresee was to be confronted by an environment of bullying, intimidation, exclusion, loneliness, be seen as a problem and past their used by date.

Both women were reluctantly forced into early retirement after being subjected to pessimistic circumstances. For years they held good positions in corporate companies, were worthy of respect and strived to build their superannuation in preparation for later years. They worked diligently, but it was how other women treated them at work, that almost destroyed them.

Their stories

Kathy was in a secondment position on a higher role for 12 months. She was in the office from 7am to 4pm, rarely had a lunch break, while other women spent time internet shopping, reading online news etc. She was given innumerable tasks while they were out having coffee or walking around chatting to each other. She was overwhelmed by the lack of support from her younger female boss and attempted to seek guidance. Her manager’s response was “work harder”. She felt as an older woman, she was overlooked. It was more about who you knew and how high your profile was. She felt isolated and confused.

No-one was willing to lend a hand, nor support her and she eventually discerned there was no option but to resign. Post-employment she fell into deep depression. Kathy felt like she had lost her identity, her sense of purpose and could not contribute to help out with household expenses. She thought about suicide. She struggled in an emotional pit for over 12 months, felt invisible and lost all interest in seeing friends or become involved in anything. Mercifully she had her husband.              

One of Kathy’s friends had similar treatment in a different company. Her recent email reluctantly stated, “I’m always annoyed about how unfair it is at work. It’s not a case of how hard you work or what you do, it’s who you are. Time for a change after 18 years here”.

Judy had begun in a new division in her company, and similar to Kathy, worked hard to achieve excellent results. However, that became the scourge of her life. She was told to back down as she was showing the others up and rocking the boat. Her young female supervisor was un-supporting and “management didn’t want to deal with it”. She was told she was “over dramatic”.

HR provided no support even though she spoke to them over a period of time. She was extremely stressed going to work, couldn’t sleep, felt isolated and helpless. Her work colleagues didn’t want to get involved and as a single parent she had no support person to turn to. “It eats away at you. I questioned myself, was worn down, lost confidence and broke out in red blotches” she confessed.

She was stalked and intimidated by one young female who followed her home. The police couldn’t do anything until “something happened to her”. Alone, Judy dealt with the shock of all the calamity. It made her realise how vulnerable kids at school must feel. Judy relinquished her job after 25 years of service.

Their stories reminded me of the Queen Bee Syndrome determined in 1973. It can start around primary to high school, particularly with adolescent girls. Victims are targeted by females who try to block them from getting on with the job.

Queen Bees

Described as a woman in a position of authority who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female. A way of them trying to fit in with their male counterparts by adhering to the cultural stigmas placed on gender in the workplace.

They distance themselves from female subordinates to show more masculine qualities and to be viewed stereotypically as more professional and valuable in the workplace.

Other research suggests that “gender-biased work environments shape women’s behaviour by stimulating women with low gender identification to dissociate with other women and to display queen-bee responses as a way to achieve individual mobility”.  

70% of women say they are victims of Queen Bee Syndrome and it is the one thing that could be holding back their career more than sexist men. More than two-thirds of other women report they feel bullied by female colleagues in the work place.

The long-term negative effect on individuals are immense and dangerous, not to mention productivity and employee satisfaction.

Stir the nests

I’m not saying women, young or old, shouldn’t be ambitious nor assertive. Merely, to question their own behaviours and not disavow others. This manipulation of power to damage reputations needs to be addressed and has to stop.  

As older women we continue to maintain our drive and ambition and are definitely capable of taking calculated risks in the workplace. We should be revered, as we are very much involved in the world around us, not dejected.

It is becoming evident that ageism is worse than sexism in this century. It is a complex issue and it’s not all about sexist men. Organisations should be more aware of the problem if they wish to incorporate gender balance and retain experience in the workplace.  At a minimum, acknowledge the soul destroying power of adversity that women can have over others, and stir up the Queen Bee nests.

How are they now

Kathy and Judy are in their early sixties and getting on with life but it took little prompt for their suppressed pain and tears to surface when they shared their stories. Their tales are not uncommon and it came as no surprise.

I question the notion that female solidarity is on the improve and propose we look out for each other rather than demoralise.

Acknowledgments: Queen Bee Syndrome, Wikipedia; G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayaratne, and C. Tavris in 1973,  Journal of Development and Learning in Organisations, Association of Psychological Science, 2011, Vol.22; iss.10.pp.1243-1249, fairygodboss.com, Why We Need Older Women in the Workplace by Lisa Miller

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