Are Black Women Expected To Be Pushier At Work?

A white man who runs a company forcefully, with no sugar-coating or hand-holding, is considered a great leader. But when women and black men do the same, several studies have shown, people don't like them very much. So one might imagine that black women might face a double backlash if they aggressively take charge.

But the opposite is true, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science and reported by Science Daily. Black women are liked just as much as white men when they're dominant, decisive and talk real talk.

In the study, participants were given a scenario in which an imaginary Fortune 500 executive meets with an underperforming subordinate.

Sometimes the boss was forceful, sometimes he or she was compassionate and encouraging. The participants were also shown a picture of the supposed executive, and asked to judge whether the leader dealt with the situation well, and how much employees admired the person.

The assertive white women and black men got bad grades. But the assertive white men and black women got good ones. It seems that black women don't face the same expectations and assumptions as those who share either their race or their sex.

While white women have had to grapple with stereotypes of themselves as dainty flowers or doting wives, black women have been represented somewhat differently. The dominant black female stereotypes are the Angry Black Woman, who speaks her mind and takes no crap (see the shrill and vicious Sapphire of "Amos n Andy," the uber-matriarch Madea of Tyler Perry's films, and Michelle Obama caricatured on the cover of the The New Yorker with an Afro and machine gun), as well as the the Strong Black Woman, who stoically takes on adversity (the unmoving Rosa Parks, the stunningly resilient Precious, Oprah in "The Color Purple").

These stereotypes, like all stereotypes, have serious downsides. "Can we only cry away from other black women?" Sheri Parks asks in her book on the Strong Black Woman stereotype. But sometimes they come in handy, like in the workplace.

The study doesn't say, however, that racism and sexism aren't still problems. Our country has only had one black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company: Ursula Burns of Xerox. The researchers, Shelby Rosette of Duke University, along with Robert Livingston and Ella Washington of Northwestern, in fact got the idea for the study after reading about Burns' magisterial ascent, and how it "didn't seem like she was being shy or docile or tiptoeing on eggshells," Livingston told Science Daily.

Black women aren't immune to all the many issues of being black and women. But as this study shows, those issues aren't always the same as being black or being a woman.

"Black women leaders occupy a unique space," Rosette told Science Daily. "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."

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