At last week’s United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C. over 5,000 people (mostly women) convened to focus on what needs to be done to support women and girls around the world.  From economic empowerment to ending violence against women, women stood shoulder to shoulder ready to work together to improve the lives of all women.  While inside the Summit a “Together, We are Stonger” vibe filled the air, outside the conference hall, in our culture at large, we have a great deal of suspicion about the ability of women to work together. 

As I write in the Atlantic, such suspicions can be seen in two different cultural ideas about the role women should play in helping other women advance at work: The Righteous Woman vs. The Queen Bee 

The Righteous Woman belief argues that women have a distinct moral obligation to help each other. “This kind of sentiment is best typified by Madeleine Albright’s now famous quote, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”. The basic idea is that since all women experience sexism, they should be more attuned to the gendered barriers that other women face.  In turn, this heightened awareness should lead women to foster alliances and actively support one another.  If women don’t help each other, this is an even worse form of betrayal than those committed by men.  And hence, the special place in hell reserved for those women.” 

The Queen Bee belief, on the other hand, argues that women just can’t get along.  As a result of something inherent to the female sex, women always undermine each other. This perspective is echoed in statements like this: “But aren’t women really to blame?  The times I’ve been treated the worst at work was at the hands of another woman.  Women are their our own worst enemy.”  From this perspective, it is Queen Bees (not men) who are really responsible for holding women back. 

Both viewpoints reinforce a double standard about conflict – that conflict between men is ordinary, but conflict between women is pathological.  In fact, we apparently think it’s so rare for men to undermine other men at work that we don’t even have a word for it.  There is no male equivalent for the term Queen Bee. 

The stereotype that women are backstabbing and conniving unfairly shapes how we interpret the arguments we see at work.  Research finds that when we see workplace conflict between two women we think that the relationship will be more damaged than if the identical conflict takes place between two men.  Very likely then we are over estimating that amount of Mean Girl behavior that we think we see. 

These kinds of double standards highlight the opposing thoughts we have about women supporting women.  We simultaneously think that women have a particular obligation to support other women but that their inherent nastiness will prevent such solidarity from actually happening.  So we are left with the following predicament:  If women would only help each other, women could be much further along.  Too bad they are so catty.

So are women and girls inherently catty?  Or is something else going on?

Research on these kinds of behaviors have found instances in which women are harder on other women.  But deeper analysis of the Queen Bee syndrome has discovered that far from being a main cause of gender inequality, it is a consequence of gender discrimination. 

Women who engage in Queen Bee behaviors are those who experience higher levels of gender bias in the workplace but for whom being a woman is not a big part of their identity.  What’s happening in this scenario is that when these women are on the receiving end of gender bias, it comes as a big shock because it forces them to realize that others see them primarily as women, when that’s not how they see themselves. 

When people feel that who they are has been inaccurately categorized they experience what psychologists call social identity threat.  And the threat triggers a response.  Moreover, negative beliefs about women (that they are too emotional or not great leaders) can make many women concerned that being seen as “only a woman” will make it tough for them to advance up the career ladder.  In response to the identity threat and as a way to circumvent gender bias, some women turn to a strategy of advancement that is based on distancing themselves from other women.  This distancing is evident in things like disparaging other women, seeing themselves as more masculine and not like other women, or dismissing claims of gender discrimination. 

Social distancing responses are not unique to women.  Rather, it’s a strategy used by many individuals who are members of lower status groups in order for them to individually navigate around the negative cultural beliefs that exist about their group.   

To be sure, not all women engage in Queen Bee behaviors.  Research has shown that women who highly identify with their gender respond to gender discrimination on the job by wanting to work on behalf of other women.  And many studies find that women do support other women.  An analysis of high potential employees found that the women were more likely than their male counterparts to be developing other women (73% vs. 30%). 

One day it may be the case that gender doesn't matter and all people are treated similarly and have the same opportunities.  Until then, for women the message that Together, We are Stronger is absolutely true.