Wednesday, 6 June 2012

How do people perceive dominant behaviour by black female leaders?

For women in managerial positions, taking behaviours that are too overtly dominant or coloured with emotions can incur penalties: their leadership skills may be questioned and expressing anger frequently may lead them to lower status and salaries. Black leaders walk a similar line, with male black CEOs benefiting from having non-threatening, 'babyfaced' features where white leaders with more rugged features thrive. You could expect black women who are dominant and agentic to be especially penalised, subject to some kind of 'double jeopardy'. But the truth seems to be much more interesting.

In a US study led by Robert Livingston together with Ashleigh Shelby Rosette and Ella Washington, 84 non-black participants were asked to evaluate fictional leaders. Participants were assigned to conditions which changed just a few elements of the information they received: the skin colour (white/black) and gender of the leader, and glossing a directive or collaborative approach over an account of how they dealt with a poorly performing employee - for instance, whether they 'demanded' or 'encouraged' an improvement in performance. The directive approach suggested personal dominance which might turn participants against a leader. To measure this, participants responded to questions on leader effectiveness, gathered into an overall score, and rated whether the treatment of the employee owed more to the situation or to the leader's personality: an attribution to personality suggests poor judgment and inability to control themselves.

The data showed that white males received similar attributions of behaviour whether they were collaborative or directive. In line with previous work,  when they were dominant female leaders' decisions were attributed more to their personality, as were those of the black bosses. But there was a significant interaction between race and gender: black women leaders escaped the penalties, receiving similar attributions to the white male in both conditions. The same story was found for leader effectiveness: black or female bosses were penalised for agentic behaviour, but black and female bosses were not.

What's going on? Livingston's team believed that black women are receiving a perverse benefit from a particularly marginalised position. Their reading is that women are expected to conform to proscribed gender roles centring around soft emotions and minimal agency. Similarly, black 'others' may represent an out-group threat that is validated by expressions of dominance. Under this account, however, the prototypical idea of being 'black' evokes a black man, and 'woman' a white woman, at least in American society. As a consequence, black women are to some degree an anomaly - neither the classic black threat nor the threat to the established gender status quo – and so escape the associated penalties due to a kind of stereotype invisibility.

Livingston's team emphasise that this study does not suggest that black women escape prejudice in the workplace. There are many ways you can be differentially judged, for instance, evaluation and attribution of failures (on which we've written before). But this study suggests that when it comes to showing what you feel and getting things done, black women don't suffer a backlash when, as white males are able to, they get things done in an agentic fashion.

ResearchBlogging.orgLivingston, R., Rosette, A., & Washington, E. (2012). Can an Agentic Black Woman Get Ahead? The Impact of Race and Interpersonal Dominance on Perceptions of Female Leaders Psychological Science, 23 (4), 354-358 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611428079

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