Study Finds That Black Women Leaders Are Not Viewed Negatively When They Act Assertively

Scholars at the business schools at Duke University and Northwestern University conducted a study in which they showed photographs and descriptions of a fictitious senior vice president of a Fortune 500 company to survey participants and asked them a series of questions based on encounters involving the senior vice president and a subordinate employee. The results showed that in a corporate setting Black women faced less of a backlash from the survey participants for dominant behavior than White women or Black men. The reason appears to be that participants expected Black women to be strong and accepted that type of behavior from them. But the surveyed participants reacted negatively when White women or Black men exhibited assertive behavior.

Robert Livingston, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and coauthor of the study, stated that “Black women don’t represent the same level of threat as Black men nor do they activate the same level of ‘surprise’ as White women who behave assertively.”

Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, an associate professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and coauthor of the study, explained, “Our findings challenge many of the assumptions in previous research, which has presumed that because of the negative perceptions of both her race and gender, a dominant Black woman leader would be subject to a sort of ‘double jeopardy.’ The intersection of race and gender may place dominant Black women in a unique position that buffers them from some of the racial prejudices aimed a Black male leaders and the gender biases directed toward White female leaders.”

But, Dr. Livingston cautions, “Even though Black women can behave assertively once they are already in leadership positions, it doesn’t mean they are more likely to obtain those positions in the first place.”

Dr. Livingston has been on the Northwestern University faculty since 2007. He previously taught at the University of Wisconsin. He is a graduate of Tulane University and holds a master’s degree in Romance languages and literature from UCLA. He earned a second master’s degree and a Ph.D. in social psychology from Ohio State University.

Dr. Rosette holds a bachelor’s degree and master in professional accounting degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She received her Ph.D. in management and organizations from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

The research is scheduled to be published in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science.

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