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African-American women leaders face less backlash, study says

Wednesday, February 22, 2012  
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African-American women business leaders face less backlash for assertive behavior than their white female counterparts, according to new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

White female leaders and black men are viewed more negatively than black women when they display assertiveness, dominance or anger, according to the study.

Researchers surveyed 84 non-black participants from a nationally representative online pool and provided the 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 white female and black male leaders. However, dominant behavior did not produce more negative evaluations of white male or black female leaders. In fact, black women -- similar to white male leaders -- didn't suffer any penalty for exhibiting dominant behavior instead of more encouraging behavior.  

"Research on stereotypes has shown that white women and black men are viewed as being docile, warm and communal, both descriptively -- how they are -- and prescriptively -- how they should be,” said Kellogg School Professor Robert Livingston."Our data indicate docility is not prescribed for [black women] because they don't represent the same level of threat as black men nor do they activate the same level of ‘surprise’ as white women who behave assertively.”

The 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,” said Fuqua Professor Ashleigh Shelby Rosette. "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.”

Although black women do not suffer penalties for dominant behavior, they may suffer other types of penalties. "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.”

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