As black men are frequently penalised for being assertive and aggressive leaders at the place of work, black women are expected to behave boldly, finds a new study.
"Traditionally, women have been assigned to a more subordinate role," Robert W. Livingston from Northwestern University, who co-wrote the new study with Ashleigh Shelby Rosette of Duke University and Ella F, as saying.
Rosette explained that according to prevailing cultural norms, men are expected to occupy dominant roles, while women are typically prescribed to more communal roles.
Previous research has shown that when people think about a prototypical leader, they tend to think about a white man. If women behave in a way that is at odds with these prototypical roles - more dominant and less communal, for example - they will be perceived in a negative light.
This "backlash effect" or "agency penalty," has been found in both experimental research and in studies of real-life settings.
While considerable research has examined this gender-based effect, there hasn't been much research that has looked at gender in conjunction with race. Researchers had assumed that the perceptions that people applied to white women would also be applied to black women, Rosette noted.
"So the logical next question was what about black female leaders? Do they suffer double jeopardy?" Livingston said.
The authors were inspired in part by a newspaper article describing how Ursula Burns became the CEO of XEROX and the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company.
The article described a lot of behaviour that seemed assertive and dominant to Livingston.
"It didn't seem like she was being shy or docile or tiptoeing on eggshells," he said.
In the new study, each participant was shown a picture of a fictitious official at a Fortune 500 company. Each picture was paired with a scenario in which the leader was meeting with a subordinate who wasn't performing well.
Dominant leaders demanded action and were assertive, communal leaders encouraged the subordinate and communicated with compassion.
Participants rated the leader on questions like how well the leader handled the situation and how much they thought employees admire this leader.
While people were negative about assertive black men and white women, black women had as much latitude as white men to be assertive. This shows that black women really are a separate category when it comes to leadership.
"Black women leaders occupy a unique space," Rosette said.
"These findings show that just because a role is prescribed to women in general doesn't mean that it will be prescribed for black women," Rosette said.
This study does not suggest, however, that racism is no longer a problem or that black women leaders don't experience problems because they are perceived more like white men than white women.
Rosette emphasized the fact that this new study only talks about women who have already reached top leadership roles.
"This research doesn't examine what it is like for black women to get to those roles in the first place," she added.he study has been published in Psychological Science.