When a new study came out earlier this month suggesting that assertive black women receive less backlash than white women on the job because they’re expected to be strong, it seemed like a bit of a catch 22. But the researchers behind the study say black women can use this information to their advantage in the work place because what the results really show is that they are good leaders.
“There’s this idea that acting dominantly is explicitly proscribed for white women and explicitly proscribed for black men,” says Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, co-author of the study and an associate professor at Duke. “However, for black women there is this stereotype out there of the ‘angry black woman.’ Some of these behaviors we often think of as extremely negative but actually, if you think about it, that angry black woman stereotype is also congruent with things like being aggressive, dominant, assertive, and self-assured—and those are our typical leader characteristics.”
In an online survey of 84 non-black participants conducted by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, subjects were asked a series of questions based on eight different scenarios with executives either communicating dominant or communal behaviors. When the results were tabulated, aggressive and direct leadership reflected negatively on white females and black males, but surprisingly it was seen as positive coming from black women and white men.
The reason for this, Rossette says, is that in the minds of most people, “Black women aren’t just a mirror image of white women—they occupy a new and unique space.” When you think of women, white females typically come to mind, and when when it comes to race, there’s usually an image of a black man. Because black women fall in between the two, they are seemingly safe from the negative outlooks placed on either group.
Rossette says these results require a new way of thinking about the power black women currently hold in the workplace, yet there is still much to do.
“When a black woman occupies a leadership position, she may have more behavioral freedom than we previously thought to communicate more forthrightly and recognize that she won’t necessarily be penalized because of that.
“But the presumption in our research is that she currently occupies the position. It’s completely counterintuitive to what we thought would happen when black women occupy these top positions, but the next aspect is how do we get them into these positions.”
Do you agree with this study’s findings about black women’s assertive nature making them good leaders?
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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