Backlash is well-known shorthand for describing the negative reactions — from low-grade harassment to overt hostility — women and minorities often face when in the workplace, including when they take on leadership roles. The dynamics of backlash are rarely straightforward, involving a mashup of stereotypes, expectations, and tensions that are not immediately obvious even to those who study them for a living.
A few years ago, Professor Katherine Phillips was teaching a course on diversity when some conflicting ideas about stereotyping and backlash prompted her to more closely weigh her own experiences as an African-American with those of her black female colleagues and friends. Did women of different races face the same kind of backlash as women as a group, as the course content seemed to suggest? For a long time, psychologists assumed that black women not only experienced the same kind of backlash as white women but also faced double jeopardy. “But the logic of that, I realized, wasn’t consistent,” Phillips explains. “If black women face the stereotype and expectation that they should be and are aggressive and intimidating — you can pull the stereotype of the angry black woman out of the newspaper: assertive, angry, and dominant — why would they still experience this backlash effect for behaving in a way that is largely expected?”
Phillips worked with Erika Richardson of Northwestern University, Laurie Rudman of Rutgers, and Peter Glick of Lawrence University to answer the question: how do people respond to black women in leadership roles compared to their black male and white male and female counterparts?
In a two-part study, the researchers first conducted a survey designed to document descriptive stereotypes — how participants perceived four groups of people: black men, black women, white men, and white women. Since how people perceive others is not always consistent with how people expect others to behave, the survey also assessed those expectations, or prescriptive stereotypes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that white women are, on the whole, expected to be more communal – more warm and caring — and less dominant — less aggressive and intimidating — than white men, while black women are expected to hold true to their stereotype as dominant and intimidating.
“But when you look at the differences between black women, black men and white women, black women are expected to be more dominant than all of the other groups,” Phillips says. “That was quite a surprise to us.”
The researchers’ next step was to see how, in fact, participants would respond to people who displayed dominant characteristics. They asked participants to review information about job candidates — male, female, black, and white — who were described as successful, competent, and dominant, all competing for a high-level position requiring strong social skills, leadership experience, and problem-solving skills. Participants rated the candidates on hirability, likability, communality, and dominance. Black women were rated as both more hirable and more likeable than their white female or black male equivalents, and as equally hirable and likeable as their white male equivalents.
Taken together, the findings suggest that black women in leadership roles may be punished less than their white female or black male counterparts when they display dominant characteristics. (Emphasis on less: those leaders being evaluated tended, on the whole, to score no higher than a 4 on a 7-point likeability scale.)
“While this suggests there is a silver lining — or more accurately, a silver tinsel — that we can take out of what is often perceived as an intractable place in society, we should not interpret this to mean that the on-the-ground experience of black women in leadership positions is a rosy one, or that the angry black woman stereotype helps them,” Phillips says. “Reality is much more complex than that.”
Why this is so is more difficult to figure out, says Phillips. “Is it that a black woman vying for a leadership role matches the expectation of black women as dominant, and therefore she’s viewed as more hirable? Or maybe it’s because she is not seen as a direct competitor. No one thinks she’d make it to the top to begin with, so in the absence of a perceived threat there’s no backlash? Is it that others really just don’t care that much about her?”
Phillips hopes the study sparks a conversation about the role of black women in society and particularly those in leadership positions. “Black women and white women, as well as black men, may not be facing the same barriers,” she says. “We have to understand that the solutions to address gender bias — and racial bias — may not be consistent across all groups so that we know how to dismantle the glass ceiling in ways that will allow anyone to rise above.”
Katherine Phillips is the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Management Division at Columbia Business School.