The U-Va. president drama: Is it the Queen Bee scenario?

Petula Dvorak
Columnist June 25, 2012

Let’s be honest here.

Is the drama over the ouster of the University of Virginia’s president so compelling because it makes us stare down the death of our culture’s sacred, wood-paneled, leather-bound idea of higher education?

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Are we so worried that Thomas Jefferson’s “academic village” will be run like a fast-food chain? That the pride of the Old Dominion will turn into a drive-through degree mill that offers 25 percent off if you order online?

Or really, is it just the woman-on-woman smackdown that makes us all keep tuning in?

It has come down to a clash of two successful women, and they are both great characters, both firsts in their positions.

The woman doing the firing is a sharp-profiled, sharp-suited corporate leader who has busted chops in the male-dominated world of construction — “The Devil Wears Prada” and a hard hat. Her name, Helen E. Dragas, even sounds Hollywood. She is the university’s first female rector, and the classic Queen Bee.

The woman who was fired — and whose reinstatement students and faculty are rallying behind — is U-Va.’s first female president, Teresa Sullivan. She is a beloved, bespectacled professor and respected scholar in a softer discipline — sociology — and was admired for her quiet advocacy of women and open-door policy toward students. She zips around campus in her Smart car and teaches a sociology class.

Snape vs. Dumbledore, but female.

It is difficult to understand exactly why Dragas called for Sullivan’s resignation. The best we got was “philosophical differences” and a charge that she wasn't moving fast enough on a vision for the university’s future, in her two years there.

That’s why the Queen Bee scenario seems to make so much sense here. It is the classic archetype of the female leader, the lone woman who has succeeded but slams the doors on the sisters behind her. She wants no other woman to share her spotlight. Just about any woman I know has had one of these female bosses. Do you remember the Bee who stung you?

According to a 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute, the Queen Bee is still buzzing over cubicles everywhere. Female bosses who bully their underlings target other women 80 percent of the time, according to the study.

“In 2007, the woman-on-woman bullying prevalence was 71 percent. Now it is 80 percent. Looks like the American workplace is growing ever more toxic for women, at the hands of women,” the study said.

And because the two are so different — Dragas and Sullivan — it’s easy to see why Dragas pined for the male president she knew, former president John T. Casteen, and had a difficult time seeing what everyone else loved so much about Sullivan.

But hold on. Another study released just this month and written about by our leadership columnist Jena McGregor said that Queen Bees are a dying breed, that the myth of woman-on-woman scheming and backstabbing in the workplace is on the wane.

A nonprofit research group called Catalyst found that women are more likely to be workplace mentors. In its study, 65 percent of women who received career development support are helping others get ahead compared with 56 percent of men. Meanwhile, 73 percent of the women developing new talent are developing women, compared with only 30 percent of men, according to the study.

As more women join the ranks of upper management, the workplace becomes less of the the winner-takes-all crucible that helped create the Queen Bee. On campus, the woman-versus-woman clash is not so important.

“I don't see this as a Queen Bee situation, no,” said Sharon Davie, the director of the University of Virginia Women’s Center.

Davie said the only way that gender plays a role in this issue is that having a female president at a university that was once known for its exclusion — in 1969, the Board of Visitors only allowed “qualified student wives and daughters of staff members” to attend class — shows amazing strides in diversity. But today, Sullivan is a great leader, not a great female leader.

“Terry Sullivan is a great leader, but not because she is a woman,” Davie said.

And what about Dragas? Is she the Bee?

“I don’t know her,” said Davie, who circulated a university-wide letter urging that the university reinstate Sullivan, but has restrained from trashing Dragas.

If Dragas were a man, the feelings wouldn’t be any different on campus, she said. And if Sullivan were male, students and faculty would be equally upset at the turmoil.

This probably has more to do with the culture that the two women come from. Dragas is the hard-charging executive of a family company, where her word is gospel whether it’s a good or a bad decision. Sullivan comes from the world of academia, where vision and consensus and cohesion are valued. Maybe, we are slowly coming to a place where an upheaval like this is about two leaders clashing, and not two women clashing.

If anything, this episode in U-Va history has shown that women can make just as big a mess of things as men.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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