Expert Commentary

The impact of race and interpersonal dominance on perceptions of female leaders

2012 study from Northwestern University and Duke University on gender, race and perceptions of assertive behaviors in the workplace.

Black female executive (iStock)

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

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