Home > Daily Struggles, Naming Experience > Queen Bees, Old and Young

Queen Bees, Old and Young

Yesterday I attended a talk on gender and science. It was a very frustrating experience, because I had been looking forward to the talk. But the speaker, a senior administrator who should know better, made it a difficult and trying experience. About a third of the slides in the talk were dense data tables scanned from publications. Projected on the screen, the type was so tiny you could not read a thing on them, at least from where I was sitting in the audience. The speaker kept saying, “Well, you can’t read this, but it doesn’t matter, because all you need to know is…” All I need to know is, why are you wasting my time showing me slides that can’t be read? It is disrespectful to your audience to not care enough to take the time to create real, readable and informative slides that summarize your research. Also, I can read your slides as well as you can. Please don’t read them to me. Potential speakers take note: do not do this to your audiences. Some good advice on giving a talk: I hope that’s not behind a paywall.
At any rate, in the question and answer period, a young woman raised an issue one often hears – that of senior women who not only don’t mentor junior women, but treat them harder than their male counterparts. I will admit to having encountered a few women like this in my past, but I’m also aware that the opposite exists: young women who absolutely insist that discrimination and bias are a thing of the past, who seem unwilling to think about the structural features of institutionalized sexism. They’ll even go so far as to defend white male privilege when you raise the issue. Here’s part of what I think is at play in this.


Many of these young women have a hugely ambitious desire to be Teh Awesome in science, at the same time that they suffer from a hugely suffocating fear that maybe they are not only not Teh Awesome, but are Teh Stupid. They want to be accepted and anointed by the powers that be, who happen to be white guys. They tell themselves they are not like other loser women. It’s a bit like “passing as a man” e.g. a “real scientist”.
When you are struggling with all that, you have a lot invested in defending powerful white males as really cool dudes who totally love you and will help you out in your career and could NEVER be sexist or racist because they are such nice guys and awesome scientists and science is objective and all that. You must deny the sexism you may personally experience or that is all around you because you don’t want to believe it will affect your career You want to believe you will work hard and be rewarded accordingly.
Being a woman is no guarantee that you will respect other women and/or realize that feminism has some valid points to make. There are powerful forces that reward you for identifying with the oppressor. And let’s face it: it’s not like coming into feminist consciousness makes everything happy and shiny. False consciousness is bliss.
Or not. Because as depressing as it can be to contemplate sexism, it can be quite difficult trying to navigate life without a theoretical framework that explains the shit going on around you. I speak from experience. Here’s something I wrote several thousand years ago as a graduate student (published here), a few months after discovering women’s studies and the explanatory frameworks it offered.

I had convinced myself, or been convinced, that I was special because of what I was doing, and that other women who weren’t striving to be engineers or “hard” scientists were just wimps who weren’t trying and weren’t as good as me…But you spend time trying to neutralize your ability, to soothe the egos of male classmates; yet you know that you are still excluded and so you tend this secret little anger inside of yourself. And because there are more women in, for example, engineering than there were twenty five years ago, your status as “exceptional” is distorted. Yes, it’s normal for women to do this, we encourage them to (or at least don’t discourage them) but, no, we’re not going to treat you “just like the boys”. You’re not equal – your classmates resent you, female friends find you a mystery, males in social situations are intimidated by you. So you get lonely, and then you take comfort in the idea that you’re “special”. Society creates a category, you move into it; then you have certain experiences that reinforce and perpetuate the category. You really begin to believe you’re different and superior, at the same time that you feel different and inferior. This effectively blocks you from uniting with other women, having any sense of solidarity, and from doing anything to change society. [emphasis added]

This is why I can empathize with the queen bees. Because I used to be one, and I remember how it feels.

  1. Becca
    April 30, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Bravo! Great post. It just says so much of what I’ve seen/experienced- I have nothing to add.

  2. Becca
    April 30, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Bravo! Great post. It just says so much of what I’ve seen/experienced- I have nothing to add.

  3. Karen
    April 30, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    I did the queen bee routine as well; but coupled with depression the stress nearly did me in. I could never get past the fear that people would finally figure out how incompetent I really was. It took a very long time to learn to not do that to myself.
    BTW, In giving powerpoint presentations, I try to always follow the 72-dpi rule: most projectors have that resolution. Never mind how splendid your presentation looks on your high-resolution computer screen, it goes through a low-res filter on its way to your audience. If they can’t read it, you are wasting their time and yours.
    In the last two years, my department has interviewed 12 candidates for two tenure-track positions. Part of the process includes giving a talk to faculty and students. Only one of those candidates gave a presentation which DID NOT violate the 72-dpi rule.

  4. April 30, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    [The “Remember, you are among friends” thing is clearly a trap….]
    Interesting post. In my overlapping fields of forager research, primate studies, and African palaeoanthropology, there are many, many major females on top of their institutional heap, running the show (it may help that there is a big overlap with anthropology). So a woman in my field can related to Goodall, Hrdy, Smuts, J. Deacon, A. Brooks, M. Leakey, S. Kent, Marshall (both lineages), and so on. For instance, if you want to to forager archaeology research in northwestern South Africa, your proposal will be reviewed by a body of researchers including mostly women, and the permit will be issued by a woman. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the people who’s anthropology you are doing are relatively egalitarian. (Indeed. .. if you were dong Mayan research you may find your proposal reviewed mainly by men, and your permit issued by a man, and most likely there will be a blood sacrifice along the way).

  5. JaneSomething
    April 30, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    Actually, I would argue there are three types of mid-career women:
    1. Women who have achieved position and/or recognition, usually based on their advisor having set them up nicely, and yet magically have Never Experienced Sexism and appear to be propelled by unicorns and rainbows. Sympathetic, and yet utterly out of the loop. I figure sexism hits them eventually.
    2. Women who are realists, and I include myself in that category. We like men, and for the most part we get along with them, and most of them are neutral or maybe even supportive. However we know that the sun rises in the east and we’ve all dealt with crap on a repeated basis from unenlightened idiots, maybe, a few times a year. Some machisma but female bonding still occurs.
    3. Women who have been flagellated and abused beyond recognition. That’s the woman who managed to get put through the ringer: supervisor kept trying to threaten her to sleep with him, or worked with horrible bullying idiots for a few years too many, that type of thing. These women usually end up dropping out just before reaching mid-career, because they have really had enough. These are the Zombies of the Land of the Dammed. I feel sorry but helpless.
    I still think most women who make it through grad school tend to be #2. At some point it hits you between the eyes that although a lot of people, men and women, are ok, that sexism is still out there ready to pop out like a Jack in the Box. Except for our fortunate sisters of #1, I don’t think you can get through academia long term without realizing that it’s not all quite kosher. And I figure #1 just has farther to fall when it comes to disappointment.

  6. ec
    April 30, 2008 at 11:17 pm

    This conceptualization is excellent.
    I would be a solid #1 if not for many stories from female friends whom I know not to be hysterical. However, I just don’t think that I’ve ever experienced (academic) sexism myself.
    Here’s the thing, though: I’ve never been mediocre in whatever I was trying to do academically. I’ve always been right there with the best few in the class (who in my fields have been almost all male) and felt recognized as such by my peers and superiors. In contrast, it has often seemed that my female peers who are struggling a bit have not gotten enough credit. It seems easier for some people to question why they keep trying when I can’t imagine them having the same attitude toward the numerous males in similar situations.
    So: Maybe there’s some threshold of perceived talent that produces a #1 experience? I’m not looking forward to the stage of my career when I’ll inevitably no longer be above it.
    As a side note, I do have a massive case of imposter syndrome. I also worry that I’ve achieved certain things because people felt that they ‘should’ include a female, and I’m easy to point to as an outstanding female — but would I have been chosen if I were male? I think the reasonable answer is that I would have been chosen sometimes or with some probability, but less reliably than I have been as a female. And in that respect, I seem to be benefitting from some affirmative-action attitudes and rules without actually suffering from sexism (aside from more difficult social integration, which is another can of worms).

  7. Wendy
    May 1, 2008 at 12:12 am

    I’m just now “beginning” my journey to become a scientist; this fall, I’ll be going back to school (after a decade-long hiatus which started with the birth of my son). I’m working on my BS (in evolutionary biology), and I find all your posts on the topic of women in science (and those of other bloggers here) to be really interesting.
    I’ve experienced my share of sexism in the corporate world (working as an admin assistant for pharmaceutical engineers); now I realize that I’m going – deliberately! – into a realm where I’ll probably experience new and more frustrating levels of sexism. Oh joy. One thing in my favor is my age (I’m in my early 40s), so I have more confidence in some ways than a lot of younger women. (Of course, I might end up fighting ageism at some point, which could off-set the benefits of being older). To be honest, it scares me to think that I might actually be treated as a second-class citizen again – and to my face. As a stay-at-home mom, well, I knew that the world didn’t really respect what I was doing, but it was pretty easy to shield myself from being overtly criticized. I didn’t have to interact with people who didn’t treat me with respect. Going back to school, and later into the job force, will mean that I can no longer pick and choose all the people around me. It’s also depressing to think that things haven’t changed for women as much as I’d hoped they would in the 10 years I’ve been “out of the loop.”
    In any case, there is this tiny voice in my head that asks, “Are you SURE you want to do this? To go into a field where girls have it harder?” And then the big voice in my head shouts, “HELL YES! I have what it takes, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let myself be intimidated because of my gender.”
    So, please keep these articles coming. They’re helpful to me in a whole variety of ways. I like knowing what to expect; it might help me be prepared, and cope just a little bit better.

  8. Wendy
    May 1, 2008 at 12:12 am

    I’m just now “beginning” my journey to become a scientist; this fall, I’ll be going back to school (after a decade-long hiatus which started with the birth of my son). I’m working on my BS (in evolutionary biology), and I find all your posts on the topic of women in science (and those of other bloggers here) to be really interesting.
    I’ve experienced my share of sexism in the corporate world (working as an admin assistant for pharmaceutical engineers); now I realize that I’m going – deliberately! – into a realm where I’ll probably experience new and more frustrating levels of sexism. Oh joy. One thing in my favor is my age (I’m in my early 40s), so I have more confidence in some ways than a lot of younger women. (Of course, I might end up fighting ageism at some point, which could off-set the benefits of being older). To be honest, it scares me to think that I might actually be treated as a second-class citizen again – and to my face. As a stay-at-home mom, well, I knew that the world didn’t really respect what I was doing, but it was pretty easy to shield myself from being overtly criticized. I didn’t have to interact with people who didn’t treat me with respect. Going back to school, and later into the job force, will mean that I can no longer pick and choose all the people around me. It’s also depressing to think that things haven’t changed for women as much as I’d hoped they would in the 10 years I’ve been “out of the loop.”
    In any case, there is this tiny voice in my head that asks, “Are you SURE you want to do this? To go into a field where girls have it harder?” And then the big voice in my head shouts, “HELL YES! I have what it takes, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let myself be intimidated because of my gender.”
    So, please keep these articles coming. They’re helpful to me in a whole variety of ways. I like knowing what to expect; it might help me be prepared, and cope just a little bit better.

  9. JaneSomething
    May 1, 2008 at 10:04 am

    @ec. “So: Maybe there’s some threshold of perceived talent that produces a #1 experience? ”
    Yes and no. I would say #1 are comparatively rare. They usually went to the ‘right’ undergrad and grad school, worked for a famous supervisor who co-wrote a few papers with them that became quickly famous, and then the advisor’s network / system sets them up at the ripe age of 28 or 29 in a tenure track position at a good school after, say, a token 1 year postdoc with someone in the same cabal. Are they good at what they do, and smart and capable? Sure. Could some of this be tokenism? I’m sure it plays into it… but the larger issue is that these women tend to fit a pattern, in my experience. Naturally you need a pedigree beyond reproach, because you’re a woman. And of course these women are absolutely smart and capable. But I also think the system, when it wants to pick a woman, actually looks for #1. It wants a woman who is not only beyond reproach but who either cannot or won’t see the problems with the system (yet), which is like a form of denial perpetuation within the system. Women in #2 succeed as well, but generally on a later timeline, and often after a lot more fighting. A lot of women in #2 are not shrinking violets and I don’t think it’s ‘female behaviour’ that leads to #2, as you speculated. Do we like our women professors perfect, young, and out of the loop? I have a feeling the answer is yes. But really, is this any different from the way certain younger white men with all the right connections get sort of unnaturally boosted up, despite being ‘good scientists’? I think that this is more about the good old boys network than about affirmative action. But of course promoting women makes you look progressive, so if the system can promote a good old boy who happens to be female, then it will go for it.
    The wakeup call starts to happen a bit later, when the woman, fully ’empowered’, thinks that power is real. Then when she tries to swim against the current, especially with regard to encouraging / hiring women, or participating in certain types of outreach, or pursuing certain avenues of research in her own group, suddenly she hits the brick wall. Because women are fine as long as they toe the party line and are figureheads. That’s the surprise that you might find yourself having.

  10. JaneSomething
    May 1, 2008 at 10:04 am

    @ec. “So: Maybe there’s some threshold of perceived talent that produces a #1 experience? ”
    Yes and no. I would say #1 are comparatively rare. They usually went to the ‘right’ undergrad and grad school, worked for a famous supervisor who co-wrote a few papers with them that became quickly famous, and then the advisor’s network / system sets them up at the ripe age of 28 or 29 in a tenure track position at a good school after, say, a token 1 year postdoc with someone in the same cabal. Are they good at what they do, and smart and capable? Sure. Could some of this be tokenism? I’m sure it plays into it… but the larger issue is that these women tend to fit a pattern, in my experience. Naturally you need a pedigree beyond reproach, because you’re a woman. And of course these women are absolutely smart and capable. But I also think the system, when it wants to pick a woman, actually looks for #1. It wants a woman who is not only beyond reproach but who either cannot or won’t see the problems with the system (yet), which is like a form of denial perpetuation within the system. Women in #2 succeed as well, but generally on a later timeline, and often after a lot more fighting. A lot of women in #2 are not shrinking violets and I don’t think it’s ‘female behaviour’ that leads to #2, as you speculated. Do we like our women professors perfect, young, and out of the loop? I have a feeling the answer is yes. But really, is this any different from the way certain younger white men with all the right connections get sort of unnaturally boosted up, despite being ‘good scientists’? I think that this is more about the good old boys network than about affirmative action. But of course promoting women makes you look progressive, so if the system can promote a good old boy who happens to be female, then it will go for it.
    The wakeup call starts to happen a bit later, when the woman, fully ’empowered’, thinks that power is real. Then when she tries to swim against the current, especially with regard to encouraging / hiring women, or participating in certain types of outreach, or pursuing certain avenues of research in her own group, suddenly she hits the brick wall. Because women are fine as long as they toe the party line and are figureheads. That’s the surprise that you might find yourself having.

  11. JaneSomething
    May 1, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Another thing I should mention… younger, high achieving women who have Never Experienced Sexism are usually in a situation where they have become an Example that the System is Not Broken and In Fact Produces Happy Female Scientists who Happen to Think Just Like Us Men. Like Zuska said, “passing for men”, because so far you are young, unattached, working long hours, with the right male connections.
    If you want to test your real power in your position, just tell your department chair or supervisor that you think you might be pregnant. After the color returns to his face, you will have forever joined the rest of us in the Ranks of the Other.

  12. May 11, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Great post and insightful comments.
    I’m not sure I have anything to add here. I guess I’m a #2 afraid of slipping to #3.
    My impression is that almost no one is really a #1 in the sense of “never experienced any sexism.” Otherwise I agree that many #1 type women seem to coast through on their luck at finding the perfect pedigree. Powered by rainbows, indeed.
    I love how I’m often pointed toward these women as potential mentors. They’re totally useless to me.
    But I think it’s not that they never experience sexism. I think in most cases they cultivate a certain kind of denial/don’t notice it/don’t identify it when they see it.
    So I can try to ‘mentor up’ and make them aware.
    But my favorite aspect of these women is the queen bee mentality that women who say they’ve experienced sexism are making it up/were somehow asking for it/not good enough. (that would be me)
    But I agree that it’s very common for women to make the leap from #1 to #3 status almost overnight. If it’s not a wake up call, it’s the glass ceiling.
    Sadly, when it happens later in their careers, some of them will just sit around and whine that there’s nothing they can do for junior women even if they wanted to.
    One of my mentors is like this. She’s sympathetic but totally useless. No one ever showed her how to wield the power she has, so she doesn’t. She has a sword in her hand, but it might as well be an ice cream cone because she won’t use it.

  13. Dr Jay
    May 26, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    I find that, although male, your stories strike a chord with me. I’ve been an academic and an engineer in Silicon Valley. And I put my family first; I don’t want to work 12 hour days for the rest of my life. That’s created problems for me professionally. So I thought I’d share my experiences with you.
    To be sure, I haven’t had to deal with a lot of the stuff that women have to deal with, ranging from simple idiot sexist remarks to serious sexual harrassment. Which I know happens.
    I also recognize the “unicorns and rainbows” thing. I tended to call it the “fast track”. People in category 1, whether male or female, have generally managed to avoid experiencing any internal conflict about their life choices. They are also quite talented, I’m not saying they aren’t. But part of the ongoing strategy to avoid those internal conflicts is to deny that they exist or should exist. Because the internal conflict is costly, it slows you down.
    External realities can bring about internal conflict, whether it’s the idiotic sexist remark or the harrassment, or whatever. So people in category 1 often come equipped with a set of cognitive skills that allow them to mitigate the impact of such external realities.
    Which is why people like that make terrible mentors for someone who does feel internal conflict. It can even happen that they think that they would be great mentors, they want to teach you all their cognitive tricks. Which, if you’re in category 2, is probably not what you want.
    Because there is a path other than the fast track. It is possible to see all the crap, feel all the conflict, and let it go and do what is needed to be successful. But that’s the slow track, not the fast track. I don’t know that it’s better. I think of my experience as falling off the fast track.
    I can think of a couple people I could look at. They were being successful, and I wasn’t, though it was evident that they weren’t actually any smarter than I was. It took me the longest time to figure out why these people succeeded where I didn’t. I think that they were much better at dealing with, or avoiding, internal conflicts than I was.

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