On Queen Bees and Catfights

By Amy Diehl @amydiehl

I recently read the Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership. This book is a comprehensive, thoughtful overview of current research on women in leadership.

Sharon Mavin, Gina Grandy and Jannine William’s chapter: “Theorizing women leaders’ negative relations with other women” is especially insightful.

In my own research with women leaders, participants could not understand why women don’t always support each other. Given the challenges inherent with being both a woman and a leader, why isn’t there more solidarity?

This chapter delves into the reasons why women in the workplace don’t always get along and may be actively hostile towards other women. Are the women themselves at fault for perpetuating bad behavior? Mavin, Grandy and Williams examine underlying social and organizational processes at the root of the problem.

Mavin, Grandy and Williams explain that women leaders are working in contexts of competitive masculinity, and they are constrained by gender stereotypes. Ideal leaders are associated with masculinity. For women to prove competence and ascend in leadership they face the double-bind conflict of simultaneously behaving in both feminine ways (to be a good woman) and masculine ways (to be a good leader). According to the authors, the “queen bee” label is a sexist evaluation of women performing their leadership in a stereotypical masculine way (agentic instead of communal).

cat-1184762_960_720-enhancedOf course, women do have workplace friendships with other women, and they tend to perceive the benefits of these friendships in terms of social support. This is different from men who focus on the career advantages of workplace friendships. Women’s comfort in working together disappears when their self-interest in under threat due to the competitive nature of the environment. While women do compete with other women just as men compete with other men, they have more difficulty in acknowledging their competitive feelings. Constraints in expressing competitive feelings may lead to negative interactions labelled as petty rivalry, jealousy and envy between women, i.e. “catfights.”  While men are socialized to find their self-identity in distinguishing themselves from others, women find that their difference threatens their relations with other women – and therefore they feel bad when competing.

Finally, female misogyny is the concept which Mavin, Grandy and Williams use to explain women’s hostility towards other women. As women navigate the working world, they may face negative assessments, micro-violence and prejudice from women whose own expectations for support from other women have not been met. In addition, successful women may be seen as ‘norm violaters’ which can be an identity threat to other women. Possibilities for female friendship and solidarity are restricted when women distance themselves from each other through competitive strategies and micro-violence.

Take away: Even though women may perpetuate these “bad behaviors” they are a result of gendered hierarchies in the work environment, of which the women are likely unaware. Individual women are not the problem.


Mavin, S., Grandy, G., & Williams, J. (2017). Theorizing women leaders’ negative relations with other women. In S. R. Madsen (Ed.), Handbook of research on gender and leadership (pp. 328-343). Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.

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