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Everyday racism at work: Hope for African American Women?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Black women are expected to behave like white men when they have reached a higher level of leadership. That is the conclusion of new research looking at black women leaders.

Traditionally, white men are expected to be assertive and even aggressive leaders, but black men and white women are often perceived negatively for those sorts of behaviors in the workplace. Researchers wondered about black women and what they found was that “one size does not fit all women” when it comes to leadership expectations.

This is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding–yet, there are familiar themes along the way. We know from earlier research that African American women are more likely to confront racist statements than are Asian American women. We also know that women leaders in general are penalized more severely if they make mistakes at work. That theme comes up in this research as well. So yes, it’s still hard to be a woman–but, in this research, once you arrive, you may sound more like Aretha Franklin  than Tammy Wynette.

In the research, supervisors were presented in two modes: dominant or supportive/caring. The researchers showed both male and female supervisors and both white and black supervisors and asked the participants to rate the supervisory effectiveness.

Here’s what the researchers report:

White women were evaluated more negatively when they expressed dominance rather than caring support. However, black women did not get this same negative reaction.

Black men were penalized for expressing dominance but white men were not.

In short, black women were expected to behave more like white men when in a leadership role and (unlike white women and black men) were not punished for behaving dominantly in a leadership role. The researchers wonder why, then, are there not more black women in positions of leadership? They hypothesize that black women don’t look like the stereotype of ‘leader’ (e.g., for most people a ‘leader’ is a white male) and thus are punished more harshly for making mistakes since they don’t fit the ‘leader’ stereotype. The researchers  presume it’s harder for a black female to rise to high levels of leadership due to heavy punishment for mistakes along the way. However, once she has arrived, the black female leader is given permission to act like a white male in leadership: dominant and assertive, even aggressive at times.

This research has relevance for both litigation advocacy and for law practice management as well as for women of color striving for leadership positions.

In witness preparation, a high ranking African American female can show dominance and assertiveness in her testimony without being punished for it by jurors. Remember though that a white female or African American male will be expected to express support and caring for subordinates while still expressing a belief that direct communication as to performance expectations is a must for effective management.

If this research is accurate, a senior African American female attorney can question on cross-exam as aggressively as a white male attorney. There is likely a fine line on this behavior though, as it is often expected that women will behave more sensitively to others.

In your law practice, ensure you are not censuring African American female attorneys more harshly for mistakes than you would censure a white male attorney. Make your performance standards measurable and concrete so they can be applied equally and with a minimum of bias.

Overall, this is intriguing research and the researchers plan to explore the realities for African American women struggling to climb corporate ladders. We’ll be watching for their future work.

Livingston, 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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