Black women are judged less harshly for assertive behavior than white women, Assistant Professor Robert Livingston finds
2/27/2012 - A significant body of research has shown that white female leaders are viewed negatively when they display assertiveness, dominance or anger. But do black female leaders suffer the same consequences for similar behavior?
New research from the Kellogg School of Management and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business shows black female leaders face less of a backlash for dominant behavior than their white female counterparts or black male leaders. The study will be published in the March issue of Psychological Science, and is discussed in depth in the current issue of Kellogg Insight
“Research on stereotypes has shown that white women are viewed as being docile, warm and communal, both descriptively (how they are) and prescriptively (how they should be), and these communal prescriptions are imposed on black men as well,” said Robert Livingston
, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School.
“However, our data indicate this is not the case for black women. Docility is not prescribed for them because they don’t represent the same level of threat as black men nor do they activate the same level of ‘surprise’ or expectancy violation as white women who behave assertively.”
The researchers surveyed 84 non-black participants from a nationally representative online pool, providing subjects with a photograph and description of a fictitious senior vice president for a Fortune 500 company. Participants were asked a series of questions based on scenarios describing a meeting between the leader and a subordinate employee.
In some scenarios, the leader communicated dominance and anger by demanding action and displaying assertiveness; in other scenarios, the leader communicated sadness and disappointment and was described as more encouraging and compassionate.
The results showed dominant behavior led to more negative evaluations of black male and white female leaders and that this effect was mediated by internal attributions for the behavior.
“When behaviors run counter to prescribed norms, people often attribute the behavior to the person rather than the situation,” Livingston said.
However, dominant behavior did not produce more negative evaluations of white male or black female leaders compared to communal behavior. That is, not only did black women not suffer twice the ‘penalty’ of black men or white women who behaved dominantly, but black women — similar to white male leaders — didn’t suffer any penalty at all for exhibiting dominant behavior.
“Our findings challenge many of the assumptions in previous research, which has presumed that because of the negative perceptions of both her race and gender, a dominant black woman leader would be subject to a sort of ‘double jeopardy,’” Fuqua Professor Ashleigh Shelby Rosette said. “The intersection of race and gender may place dominant black women in a unique position that buffers them from some of the racial prejudices aimed at black male leaders and the gender biases directed toward white female leaders.”
The researchers, along with Kellogg PhD student Ella Washington, are quick to point out that although black women do not suffer penalties for dominant behavior, they may suffer other types of penalties due to the fact that they are two degrees removed from the white male leader stereotype.
“Even though black women can behave assertively once they are already in leadership positions, it doesn’t mean they are more likely to obtain those positions in the first place,” Livingston said. “The fact that there has only been one black female CEO in the Fortune 500 is clearly indicative of that.”