A growing body of research has discredited the “Queen Bee” myth and even the researchers who coined the term in the 1970’s say they now regret it. All hail the rise of “Otters” (did you know that female otters band together in rafts to prevent each other from floating out to sea), part of a cultural phenomenon that increasingly recognises and celebrates the unique and effective ways women support each other. Kristine Ziwica takes a look.
Recently, my friend Deborah Frances White, the comedian and feminist writer, was in Australia touring her hugely successful podcast and live show, The Guilty Feminist. If you haven’t discovered it already, get thee to iTunes (yes, shameless plug, but you will thank me later.)
As I have been a guest on the show before, Deborah asked me if I wanted to come on again while the show was in Melbourne. We discussed the proposed themes, but in the end, I suggested that she ask two other women to be guests instead.
When Deborah and I were having lunch the following week, Deb inquired if imposter syndrome had anything to do with that decision. Given I’ve written in Women’s Agenda about how her invitation to come on the show the previous year had prompted a personal “confidence Waterloo”, it was a fair question from a caring friend.
But on this occasion, I told Deb, I could honestly say that wasn’t a factor.
I genuinely thought that these two women should have a platform, and that they had something really important derived from their personal experiences and expertise to say about the topics at hand (health/being heard and helping women up the ladder). I thought the shows would be all the better for their contribution. Which they were — both women were brilliant.
Also, the spirit of the Guilty Feminist and what has made it both a smashing international success (6 million downlands and counting) and a wonderful community, is that the importance of providing a platform for a broad and diverse range of women (and some men) to speak to a variety of feminist issues is baked into its very DNA. Deb often talks about her role as that of a caretaker, not the “star”, of the show. I suppose I was honouring that spirit.
Now I’m not telling this story to brag about what a wonderful person I am. (And just before you think I’m a saint, I’m pretty sure I’ll get another crack at it one day.) I have a bigger point.
“Is that rare?” Deb wondered wistfully? The thing is, thankfully, it really isn’t.
That is the conclusion I came to as we further discussed one of the preceding show’s themes, helping women up the ladder.
Queen Bee Syndrome a myth
There’s a growing body of evidence proving that the co-called Queen Bee syndrome, the notion that women can’t get along and those who succeed pull the ladder up behind them, is a myth.
In fact, the researchers who coined the term in the 1970’s now say that they regret it, as the concept has been widely misunderstood and, in many cases, weaponised against women.
Wouldn’t it be terribly convenient if women were so pre-occupied fighting each other that they never turned their attention to smashing the patriarchy? And isn’t it preferable to blame women and their supposed biological pre-disposition to tear each other down rather than look at the discrimination and systemic barriers that stand in their way?
The Queen Bee myth has been a useful and terribly damaging distraction.
All Hail the Rise of Otters
Alongside this, the last few years has seen the rise of popular movements like “Shine Theory”, the “Raft of Bitches”, and “Celebrating Women”, all of which suggest that the opposite is often the case.
In 2013, US writers Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, creators of the popular Call Your Girlfriend podcast, coined the term “Shine Theory” based on the premise that, “I don’t shine if you don’t shine”. They say that Shine Theory is the practice of mutual investment in each other and relying on help in return. They ask, “Would we be better as collaborators than as competitors?” The two are parlaying the concept into a “memoir-manifesto” called “Big Friendship” due out in 2020.
Also in the US, Esther Choo, an emergency doctor based in Oregon who writes frequently about racism and sexism in healthcare, took to posting pictures of cute otters on social media as a response and ‘foil’ to online trolling.
But she soon realised the image of otters was far more symbolic.
In a “Tweetorial” (yes, that’s a thing now) published in November of last year, Dr. Choo wrote that “it turned out otters were much more than a good foil. They have all these qualities that are appropriate for strong women and/or suggest how women can succeed.”
Tweetorial on what otters have to do with feminism and social movements. If you don’t like these things, scroll on by (and also we prolly can’t be frenz). pic.twitter.com/L8fsuOuevP
— Esther Choo MD MPH (@choo_ek) November 24, 2018
A friend of Dr. Choo’s, Dr. Dara Kass, immediately pointed out that female otters, called “bitches”, join hands with other female otters in groups called “rafts” to keep from drifting out to sea while resting.
Thus, #RaftofBitches was born, an online rallying cry and celebration of women’s camaraderie and mutual admiration. There is now even a children’s book (without the “language”) to help bring the concept to a younger audience.
Here in Australia, 2018 saw the publication of Women Kind, written by Dr. Kirstin Ferguson, the creator of 2017’s viral #CelebratingWomen movement, and Catherine Fox, a long-time writer on gender equality.
Ferguson and Fox say that they wrote the book to “challenge the idea that women regularly turn on each other for scarce seats at the top table” and highlight the ways women are “rallying together in a massive and unstoppable force”.
Not just nice, but smart
Now new research backs up that this is not just a “nice” thing to do, nor is it rare, but smart. Don’t you just love it when research proves something you thought all along?
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published earlier this month has been making the rounds on social media, in many cases offered up as proof of concept by the #RaftofBitches proponents, including Women’s Agenda’s own Dr. Neela Janakiramanan (who, incidentally, launched her own #InspiringDoctors hashtag earlier this year inspired by Dr. Ferguson’s movement).
The study found that high-performing women have one thing in common: they have a tight-knit circle of other women who help them with “gender-specific private information and support.”
In other words, they are a useful resource if you have questions about work culture, hostility towards women and gender diversity. The study found that women with a tight, female-dominated inner circle had a job placement level 2.5 times higher than women with a male-dominated inner circle.
Undoing centuries of a sexist trope
In her analysis of the history surrounding the discourse of women undermining other women, Alana Piper, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Public History, has written that ,”centuries of being told women are each other’s worst enemies has resulted in confirmation bias. We are programmed to identify evidence that supports the pre-existing hypothesis.”
Phenomena such as Shine Theory, #RaftofBitches, and #CelebratingWomen, all of which highlight and raise the profile of the myriad of (effective) ways women support each other, are helping to unpick the centuries old bias that women are fundamentally incapable of acting any other way.
Not to say that we need to swing too far in the opposite direction and expect women to always behave in the collective interest of the sisterhood and never their own, which would result in an impossible double bind where women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, either dismissed as a Queen Bee or accused of being part of a self-serving “coven”.
But it is important to be mindful of the evidence right under our noses that puts to bed this damaging trope and highlights a common enough alternative.
So to all the Otters out there, and to my own #RaftofBitches, I see you. Thank you for your service.