Do ‘Queen Bees’ bully other women at work?

April 26, 2018

Many of us remember Mean Girls, the 2004 film (now been revived as a Broadway musical) that focused on the behavioral phenomenon of high school Queen Bees—those pretty, well-dressed girls who bully others in order to call attention to their own popularity

Now, a similar situation has been documented in offices nationwide, based on findings of a study sponsored by the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.

And, the researchers say, it’s only getting worse. As women have increased their ranks in the workplace, most will admit to experiencing rude behavior and incivility.

“Studies show [that] women report more incivility experiences overall than men, but we wanted to find out who was targeting women with rude remarks,” said Allison Gabriel, assistant professor of Management and Organizations at Eller College.

Gabriel and her co-authors at several other institutions set out to answer that question across three studies. Men and women who were employed full-time answered questions about the rude treatment they had experienced at work during the past month.

The questions singled out experiences with co-workers who had been condescending to study participants; made demeaning or derogatory remarks; ignored them in a meeting; or addressed them in unprofessional terms. Each set of questions was answered twice, once for male co-workers and once for female co-workers.

“Across the three studies, we found consistent evidence that women reported higher levels of incivility from other women than their male counterparts,” Gabriel said. “In other words, women are ruder to each other than they are to men, or than men are to women.

“This isn’t to say men were off the hook or [that] they weren’t engaging in these behaviors,” she noted. “But when we compared the average levels of incivility reported, female-instigated incivility was reported more often than male-instigated incivility by women in our three studies.”

Participants also were asked to complete trait inventories of their personalities and behaviors to determine whether there were any factors that contributed to women being treated badly. The research showed that women who defied gender norms by being more assertive and dominant at work were more likely to be targeted by their female counterparts, compared to women who exhibited fewer of those traits.

The researchers also found that when men acted assertive and warm—in gen—they reported less incivility from their male counterparts. This suggests men actually get a social credit for partially deviating from their gender stereotypes, a benefit that women are not afforded.

Gabriel, whose co-authors are Marcus Butts from Southern Methodist University, Zhenyu Yuan of the University of Iowa, Rebecca Rosen of Indiana University and Michael Sliter of First Person Consulting, said the research is important not only from the standpoint of individual employee health but also in terms of organizational management.

Evidence emerged in the three studies that companies may face a greater risk of losing female employees who experience female-instigated incivility, as they reported less satisfaction at work and increased intentions to quit their current jobs in response to these unpleasant experiences. Paired with estimates that incivility can cost organizations an estimated $14,000 per employee, this presents a problem for organizations.

Gabriel noted that the findings are an opportunity for companies to re-evaluate their cultures and how they address this issue.

The study, “Further Understanding Incivility in the Workplace: The Effects of Gender, Agency and Communion,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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