Queen bees halt the wannabees

September 24, 2004

Report says territorial women, as well as men, keep young female scientists down. Martyn Bull reports.

Top female scientists may be partly to blame for the lack of women in senior science jobs because "queen-bee syndrome" means they cannot tolerate competition from their own sex, according to new research.

The findings, published this week in the British Journal of Social Psychology , challenge common perceptions that male prejudice is to blame for the low numbers of women in senior academic positions.

The study found that top female scientists believe that their junior female colleagues do less work and are less committed to their careers - this is in spite of evidence showing that women produce as much as men.

The same senior female academics are frequently involved in review and appointment procedures that are specifically intended to counteract male bias. Rather than giving other women a hand up the ladder, a queen bee will seek to reinforce anti-female bias to ensure her continued pre-eminence.

The research was conducted by Naomi Ellemers of the University of Leiden, along with colleagues from the Netherlands and Italy. She dubbed the tendency that she had found queen-bee syndrome to reflect the way that bee colonies only ever have one reproductive queen. All other female bees, known as workers, are infertile and serve the queen.

The study found that queen-bee syndrome tends to affect older faculty members who carved out successful academic careers at a time when this was still an exceptional route for a woman. They may be inclined to fight the rise of other women through the academic "hive" to preserve their hard-won position. Queen bees identify themselves as predominantly masculine and set themselves apart from other women, the research says.

Dr Ellemers, whose study covered one university in the Netherlands and one in Italy, said: "The results are highly controversial, and not everyone will want to believe (the research). How widespread the behaviour is elsewhere depends on each individual country and how well women are represented."

The UK is seen as being among the more advanced countries in terms of numbers of women in science but not an outstanding one.

Lynne Frostick, professor of geography at Hull University, admitted that she had been heading down the queen-bee line before she recognised the syndrome. Nevertheless, she disagreed with the study's conclusion that older women keep their younger colleagues out of science, stating that "the old-boy network is very much intact".

She said: "I went through the old system. I played by the normal rules and have been judged by the standard promotional procedures. I delayed having children, and sometimes I wonder if being 56 with a child of 11 was the most sensible choice to make.

"But we don't have to continue with the Margaret Thatcher model, assimilating male characteristics," Dr Frostick said.

"You have to examine yourself and your motives. Just because I had to fight my way through doesn't mean it's right. You see the same attitude in the medical profession. Senior consultants who work 130-hour weeks expect others to do the same. We need to work towards a cultural shift in working patterns."

Harriet McWatters, a plant sciences researcher at Oxford University, said:

"The biggest stumbling block is the career path. Assessment criteria favour those who choose a traditional career path without career breaks or patchy publication records.

"We need to make people more aware of the choices available and to encourage non-traditional routes through academia."

The study of academic attitudes took place at the Free University Amsterdam and the University of Padua. Amsterdam has 180 faculty members across 13 departments, but only 23 (13 per cent) are women. At Padua, by contrast, just under half of the 93 faculty members are female.

UK VIEW

* There are just under 51,000 female scientists, compared with just under 80,000 male scientists

* 3 per cent of professors across all disciplines are women and 9 per cent of science, engineering and technology professors

* Only 13 per cent of last year's intake for engineering and technology degrees were women

* 1 per cent of girls at secondary school said they wanted to become professional engineers

* 36 per cent of females agree that engineering is a job mainly for men, and 46 per cent of males agree.

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