Avoiding Queen Bee Syndrome

In a good mentoring relationship, both the people involved and the campus will benefit. But what if that is not the case and the mentor starts to resent the mentee for outpacing her? Raymonda Burgman provides advice.

April 20, 2016

Susan never imagined that she’d become special adviser to the provost in just three years. Some colleagues congratulated her on the new role and responsibilities when the campus announcement was made. Yet, surprisingly, a colleague whom Susan viewed as an informal mentor approached her while she was shopping at a local bookstore and assertively said, “When I started in higher education, I worked in the same role for 10 years before being considered for a senior role. When I learned that you were being considered for this role, I met with the provost and other campus leaders to express why I think you are not well suited for this role. Honestly, if I had to put in 10 years, why shouldn’t you? What makes you so special?”

This is an extreme example of the queen bee syndrome, first defined by G. L. Staines, T. E. Jayaratne and C. Tavris in 1973, whereby women in senior leadership roles either do not support advancing other women’s leadership or actively interfere with their ability to move into more senior roles. This syndrome is often exaggerated due to the paintbrush effect. Instead of seeing these actions as the actions of one person, we instead believe all women act this way toward other women.

This unfortunate myth is the exact opposite of what we accept in good mentoring relationships. If mentoring is the key to success for any underrepresented group, especially women, then having a queen bee will prevent a campus from achieving its goals by undermining individuals we often say we most want to support. Those of us in higher education spend time and money attracting diverse candidates and build systems to retain and develop new faculty and staff members. Why would we not address campus climate issues, such as a queen bee or other hostile employee?

The queen bee syndrome presents us with a troubling view of women’s working relationships. With so many women graduating from colleges and universities but not being represented in equal numbers in campus leadership, this is not a time to regress. In the next five to 10 years, with the high number of expected presidential retirements, women will have many opportunities to assume some of the most senior leadership roles in higher education. Furthermore, women tend to be more collaborative in their leadership, and a collaborative leadership style may best meet the challenges facing higher education today, such as the decrease in the number of high school graduates and the increase in underrepresented students.

During a webinar HERS co-sponsored with the American College Personnel Association’s Coalition for Women’s Identities, the idea of strategic mentoring came through loud and clear. The webinar, “Space for Women’s Mentorship,” brought together several higher education practitioners to share their thoughts on formal and informal mentoring for faculty members, administrators and students. The advice from the webinar presenters pointed toward thinking about what you want from a mentor and how to stay actively engaged as a mentee.

In a good relationship, where the mentor and mentee share common values and principles, trust one another, make time to meet and know the expected outcomes, then the mentor, mentee and campus will benefit. Mentoring is a choice and often has components like a project that makes the relationship successful. But what if that is not the case?

  • What does a mentee do when she begins to suspect that her mentor resents her success?
  • What should the mentor do if her mentee is jealous or sabotaging her career?
  • While it would have been preferable to start at the beginning with a mutually respectful, productive relationship, once the relationship is off the rails, what should you do?

Mentee Advice

If you are the mentee, and trust and openness with your mentor break down, the action you take may depend on how the relationship was established. Did you seek out a mentor, was the mentor assigned by HR or some other campus office, or is the mentor your supervisor?

There are several options. If you originally sat down and identified a list of three to five people whom you’d like to get to know, you may have more than one mentor whom you told what you’re trying to accomplish, what you were working on and how you thought they could help you. If that is the case, you may want to end the mentoring relationship with the queen bee mentor by thanking the mentor for how she has helped you and consider how you want to change your relationship with your other mentors. Or perhaps you know someone else with whom you’d like to connect.

Using the eight-step feedback formula from Candid Culture to help guide what will undoubtedly be a difficult conversation, here is a way for you to frame the conversation:

  1. Introduce the conversation.
  2. State your motive.
  3. Describe the behavior: “I’ve noticed …”
  4. State the impact of the behavior.
  5. Ask the other person for her perception of the situation. Both people talk.
  6. Make a suggestion or request -- if your mentor knew another way to do it, your mentor would do it that way.
  7. Build an agreement on next steps.
  8. Say, “Thank you.”

If the mentor is your supervisor, it’s possible that her behavior qualifies as bullying or harassment. If your campus has a mentoring program, human resources or another campus office should provide training or mediate any bad situations that arise.

Mentor Advice

If you are a mentor, the need for a conversation with the mentee holds in situations where she appears to be jealous or sabotaging your career. And you can be as vulnerable as the mentee. If your role is closer to that of a sponsor, vouching for your mentee may mean other people attach any performance issues with her to you. Consequently, the mentee’s negative behavior or low performance issues may unintentionally impact you in a negative way.

It may also be the case that you have not been exactly honest about how much time you have to offer and what you can realistically provide the mentee, and she is now upset that she isn’t reaching her goals. Mentoring can be a full-time job. So, essentially, as a mentor, you should start the relationship with a short but purposeful conversation. And if you haven’t done that yet, you should do so now. If you know your limits, you can ensure that the mentorship experience is meaningful for the mentee and also provides what you hoped to offer.

Your role as a mentor is to act like a guide on the side. You serve as a connector and tie things together. After a conversation, you may find that the mentee was looking for a logical pathway to negotiate campus politics. After learning more specifics about the situation, you, as the mentor, may feel like you can’t offer good advice to your mentee or there is a conflict of interest. If that is the case, seeking advice from colleagues, her supervisor or a human resources professional may be warranted.

Undeniably, we are shaped by past experiences. We know what we know and we appear to know what we do not know. The tricky area is not knowing what we do not know. Here is where mentoring helps, because it is a present and future activity. It is about what you are doing or will do in the short and long term.

Though we always hope for the simplest, most direct path to success, some do not have an easy path in their jobs or in their mentoring relationships. The expectation is that mentors will aid us when our path is complicated or has clashes. There is also an expectation that we will have a collegial relationship with our mentors. Here are three quick suggestions for how to handle queen bees or any colleague with whom you have a conflict:

  1. Communication. This is the key to resolving many conflicts. We must boldly share our thoughts, even when it may be hard to do so.
  2. Honesty. Tell the truth. What do you expect from a mentor? If you aren’t getting what you need, express your appreciation and reach out to others for assistance. As a mentor, what do you expect from a mentee? If your mentee isn’t holding up her agreement with you, be honest and tell her. This is critical if the two of you work closely together and the soured relationship is impacting productivity and/or future career opportunities for either one of you.
  3. Learn More. Those who want to mentor and those who want to be mentored tend to work best together. But as mentioned, relationships can change. If your campus offers workshops on mentoring, attend those sessions together as a mentor and mentee. If not, for example, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Institute on Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development offers some useful resources on mentoring. If your relationship doesn’t fit the definition of a healthy mentoring relationship, it’s time to end it, revisit expectations or contact a human resources professional for assistance.


Raymonda Burgman is director of HERS Institutes.


Back to Top