Mentors, role models, and the Queen Bee Syndrome

I spent some of last week at the American Council on Education (ACE) annual meeting in D.C., which was preceded by meetings of ACE’s Women’s Network Executive Council (which I currently chair) and of the state coordinators for the Women’s Network.  The Network focuses on developing women leaders and helping them advance to leadership positions in higher education.

One clear message from these conversations was the importance of mentors — women and men who can provide guidance, perspective, support, and ideas when they are needed.  Many of the women who are already serving in leadership positions can link their success to one or more mentors who helped them at critical points in their careers.

As these groups were discussing the best ways to help other women, the concept of the “Queen Bee” arose.  I was unfamiliar with the term, although I certainly understand the meaning.  The Queen Bee is a woman who does not help other women;  indeed, the Queen Bee may actively block advancement and undermine other women.   Her attitude can be summarized as “My career progression was tough for me, so I’ll make it tough for you.”

In the last week, I have learned that the Queen Bee Syndrome is pervasive — and it’s not new.  The term dates to the 1970s, when researchers at the University of Michigan identified the workplace behavior that some women exhibit.  One of the interesting outcomes is that this may lead to women being more comfortable working for men than for other women — which is an unfortunate situation.  The Wall Street Journal published an excellent summary last week in an article titled “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee.”  I heartily recommend the article.  Here’s the URL:

In other parts of the ACE meetings, I met some amazing women who serve as role models for many of us (and undoubtedly mentors for some).  The president of California State University – San Marcos told a story about how excited her then-campus was when she was appointed as the first woman dean earlier in her career — and then how, a year later, a group told her that they were disappointed by her leadership.  The reason?  The other women didn’t see her banging her fist on the table and generally behaving like the men;  even the women thought that bluster was the only effective leadership style.

The president of University of Texas – Brownsville and Texas Southmost College talked about experiences in her 25 years in that role and as the first Mexican-American woman to become a college or university president in the U.S.  Her stories include being sued by the Department of Homeland Security because she refused to let them build a wall across the middle of her campus, which straddles the US-Mexico border.

The president of Pierpont Community & Technical College (a relatively new institution in West Virginia) told me an inspiring story about earning her doctorate through a program designed for women on welfare — which she was.  She was a single parent, raising children and living on food stamps, when she discovered a scholarship program designed to help women in such situations earn a college degree.  Of course, the scholarship was designed to encourage the pursuit of associates and bachelors degrees, but the program didn’t prohibit funding for masters and doctoral degrees.  She met the criteria, and she won the scholarship.  She describes herself as having a highly unlikely background for a president — and she spoke about the value of a mentor who simply challenged her with “Why not earn your doctorate?  Why not become a president?”  She will be a great mentor, too.

In 2006, the Women’s National Basketball Association held an event titled “Celebrating Inspiration,” at which the WNBA’s All-Decade Team was honored.  The keynote speaker was Madeline Albright, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and then Secretary of State.  In her remarks, she said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

I think that also means there is a special place in heaven for those who do help women succeed and advance in their careers.  I certainly hope so.


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One Response to Mentors, role models, and the Queen Bee Syndrome

  1. Pingback: Dr. Rossbacher “Rocks!”: An Interview with SPSU’s President « On Women, Work, and Academics

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