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Queen Bees Mostly a Myth, Study Shows

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Nope, female bosses don’t fight more with the women below them, a new study suggests. We just judge women’s conflicts differently than men’s.

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

It’s a dirty little secret among professional women that, as much as they are for female empowerment as a general principle, when it comes to their individual careers, some worry that working with high-powered women can be dicey. Aren’t there lots of women that reach the top by acting especially aggressive to counter stereotypes that they’re too soft to hack it. Don’t  women often climb up by kicking down, particularly in the direction of any female competition below them? In short, aren’t there plenty of ‘Queen Bees’ lurking in the upper ranks of business?

If you look at media hand wringing you’d certainly think so. The only trouble if there’s actually not a whole lot of evidence that women are particularly nasty to other women at work. At least that’s what a new study suggests.

The research by Leah Sheppard and Karl Aquino asked study participants to evaluate the severity of a fictional conflict between two men, between women and in a mixed gender team. While the situation was described in exactly the same terms, those that were told that the problem was between two women were more likely to believe that the conflict had significant negative repercussions for the organization. In short, if it’s a fight between women, others view it as particularly nasty.

The problem, the study suggests, is biases in perception not women’s behavior. The British Psychological Society Occupational Digest blog sums up the researchers’ findings:

Sheppard and Aquino highlight that there is very little data showing behavioural consequences – that women in power are more likely to actually deny positions to other women, for instance. In fact, data from a related field points the opposite way: female mentors with female proteges tend to put in more mentoring effort than men with male ones. And this points to a second critique: the lack of attention to whether male same-sex conflict has a similar incidence or severity. On an evolutionary account,  same-sex competition is likely to be more commonplace for either sex. But it is specifically tensions between women that get communicated as a phenomena, possibly because it is in violation of gender norms – women are supposed to be nurturers – and hence both more salient and judged as more negative.

In other words, women don’t fight more (though, of course some female bosses, just like some male bosses, are jerks). Female-female disagreements are simply more noteworthy because of social expectations for women.

Women 2.0 readers: Do you think this study is on to something?

Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.

Photo credit: Johan J.Ingeles-Le Nobel via Flickr.