The Impact of Race and Interpersonal Dominance on Perceptions of Female Leaders
Leadership is never easy, and women in positions of power have the added challenge of balancing “dominant” and “communal” management styles. A 2012 study by scholars at Northwestern University and Duke University explores how race can further complicate the issue.
Published in Psychological Science, “Can an Agentic Black Woman Get Ahead? The Impact of Race and Interpersonal Dominance on Perceptions of Female Leaders” examines how behaviors such as self-promotion, anger and assertive language are interpreted differently depending on the race and gender of the leader.
For the study, the researchers created eight versions of a generic Fortune 500 senior vice president profile that varied according to race, appearance, gender and management style and showed 84 non-black study participants a randomly selected version. Participants were then asked, “How much does the leader’s reaction [to a difficult work situation] reflect something about his/her personality versus something about the situation?”
Key study findings include:
- Race was found to be a significant factor when evaluating assertiveness in women: White women received more negative evaluations when they expressed dominance compared to black women.
- “Black women tend to be defined as nonprototypical, marginal members of both their racial and gender groups, and consequently are often rendered ‘invisible’ … As an ironic consequence of this invisibility, black women may be buffered from many of the racial hostilities directed toward black males.”
- An individual’s race was not a factor when evaluating stereotypical feminine behavior: “There was no difference between evaluations of black and white women when they expressed communality.”
- Assertiveness among men was also rated differently according to race: “Black men were penalized for expressing dominance…. However, White men were not penalized.”
The researchers theorize that the outsider status of black women frees them from gender and role stereotypes and allows them to behave assertively, while both black men and white women are penalized for doing so.
This result presents an “enigma,” however: “If black women have the same latitude of behavior as white men, why are there not more black women in executive positions? … Although a (competent) black female leader might be permitted to display dominance, it is not clear whether there is leniency for black female leaders who make mistakes.”
Tags: African-American, women and work
Note to instructor: The suggested lessons are designed for flexibility. The goal is to have students understand how to convey the study’s findings accurately and to consider techniques for making the subject matter broadly accessible. In addition, it is well worth discussing how the study was put together and the intellectual context from which it comes. There is also a related news article in the study analysis section.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Read the study-related Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management blog post titled "Do Black Women Have More or Less Freedom as Leaders?”
- Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
- Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example: Does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups, business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?