The Color of Leadership: Barriers, Bias, and Race

Photo via WOCinTech Chat, Flickr Creative Commons

April 19, 2016

In preparation for writing our new research report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, AAUW’s research team conducted an exhaustive (and exhausting) review of the recent academic and popular literature on women and leadership. For the most part, existing research overlooks the experiences of women of color. Yet we know that Asian, black, and Hispanic women are especially underrepresented in leadership. Fewer than 3 percent of board directors at Fortune 500 companies are women from these groups. In the legal profession, where 8 percent of equity partners are people of color, women account for just 24 percent of Hispanic equity partners, 33 percent of black equity partners, and 29 percent of Asian equity partners.

Hidden among the thousands of articles and books on women and leadership, a few studies stand out for grappling with gender and race/ethnicity and leadership at the same time. The results are not intuitively obvious.

A 2012 study examined different racial and gender identities in an experiment in which participants reported their reactions to a fictional senior executive (black/white and male/female), adopting either dominant or communal leadership styles. The most critical finding: Black men and white women executives were rated more negatively for using a dominance style of leadership (top-down management) instead of communal or participant leadership, but black women and white men did not face this same penalty. This surprising result raises the question: Might black women have an advantage in obtaining or succeeding in leadership positions?

Unfortunately, other research shows that black women leaders face different disadvantages such as being harshly punished for mistakes. In one study, researchers found that, given a scenario when a company is presented as failing, participants judged a black woman CEO more negatively than either a black man or a white woman executive.

Similarly, a study by Joan Williams and colleagues found that black women were more likely to be judged harshly for making mistakes in the sciences, another domain in which women and racial minorities have historically been underrepresented. Williams and colleagues called this the “prove it again” experience. Because black women violate both the gender and racial stereotypes of what a leader or scientist looks like, they are held to higher standards of competence than people who violate only one of these stereotypes (i.e., black men or white women).

Data from the real-world workforce confirm that black women have faced the steepest climb to leadership of any race/gender group. AAUW analysis of data by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the private-sector workforce found that black women are the most underrepresented group at the executive level when considering their participation in the workforce, and Hispanic women fare almost as badly. Both black and Hispanic women are only about one-fifth as likely to be executives as would be expected by chance.

Gender and racial stereotypes overlap to create unique — and uniquely powerful —stereotypes. According to one recent study, races are perceived as gendered. African Americans are perceived as being more masculine than white people, on average, while Asian Americans are perceived to be more feminine than white people. These and other racial stereotypes intersect with gender stereotypes in novel ways, giving black men, black women, Asian men, and Asian women very different experiences of discrimination and bias based on their gender and race.  As a result, the obstacles faced by white women and women of color can differ considerably. It is time that all of us pay closer attention to these differences, so that we can understand and eliminate the barriers and biases facing diverse populations of women.


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Catherine Hill, Ph.D. By:   |   April 19, 2016

1 Comment

  1. Diane Patton says:

    Catherine,
    In your research, have you found models of programs that help girls of color develop leadership skills?

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