Destroying the myth of the queen bee worker


By Heidi Stevens

There’s a pernicious and pervasive myth that women cling tightly to their success, shielding the recipe from other women, lest they steal it and bake a better version.

Sheryl Sandberg wrote wisely on the topic in The New York Times in June.

“The biggest enemy of women, we’re warned, is a powerful woman,” she wrote. “Queen bees refuse to help other women. If you approach one for advice, instead of opening a door, she’ll shut the door before you can even get your foot in.”

She then debunked the notion with statistics. In one workplace survey, women were mentored by 73 percent of the other women but only 30 percent of the men, for example, and 65 percent of women who received mentoring paid it forward by mentoring others, compared with only 56 percent of men.

Grace Bonney, founder of the DesignSponge blog, further destroys the myth with her new book, “In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice From Over 100 Makers, Artists and Entrepreneurs” (Artisan).

“My experience, personally and at work,” Bonney told me, “has been that women realize when one of us does well, it helps all of us.”

Bonney will lead a discussion at the Music Box Theatre on Sunday, where she’ll be joined by a panel of artists, entrepreneurs and authors to discuss the themes of her book: risk-taking, pursuing your artistic passion, elevating other women.

“More than anything I’ve ever done, this book was such a community effort,” Bonney said. “It’s really nice to be able to point into a crowd and say, ‘All of us did this. It was a village effort.’”

“In the Company of Women” tells the stories of more than 100 women who work for themselves — artists, writers, designers, chefs, musicians. She talks to established names like Eileen Fisher and Roxane Gay, and women who are just launching their fledgling careers.

“My goal was really to make sure any woman reading it — a 13-year-old middle-schooler or someone in their 80s thinking about picking up the paintbrush again — would see themselves in one of these women and be inspired to dream big,” Bonney said.

Another goal was to paint a truer picture of who’s out there creating.

“In 2014 I had a realization,” she writes. “The majority of women-centered business events, books and platforms were promoting the same type of woman over and over again. These success stories most often belonged to young, straight, white, cisgender women.

“I am 100 percent in support of any business that’s bringing good into the world,” she continues, “but I was acutely aware of how many women — women of color, women from the LGBT community and differently abled women — weren’t being celebrated or included in these discussions.”

“In the Company of Women” includes a beautifully diverse range of voices, all of them weighing in on lessons they’ve learned, mistakes they’ve made, traits they’re proud of, characteristics they admire in others and so on.

The answers aren’t conventional.

“Name the biggest overall lesson you’ve learned in running a business.”

“Patience,” answers stylist Linda Rodin.

“What quotation inspires you?”

“We don’t live like nobody’s watching,” answers photographer Matika Wilbur. “We live like our ancestors are watching.”

“What would you tell yourself 10 to 20 years ago that you wish you knew then?

“Stop buying dresses,” answers musician Neko Case. “You hate them.”

“What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day?”

“Drink a cup of coffee and read the obits,” answers artist Maira Kalman.

“What characteristic do you most admire in other creative women?”

“The audacity to do something different and embody their own difference,” answers author and TV host Janet Mock. “We are trained to fit in, assimilate and blend in, so I’m always enamored of women who overcome that training and just stick out.”

“In The Company of Women” is a whole book of such women, and it’s beautiful to behold.

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Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at hstevens@chicagotribune.com. Column courtesy of Associated Press.

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at hstevens@chicagotribune.com. Column courtesy of Associated Press.

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