How racism holds Black women back from leadership positions
In 2021, there were two CEOs who were Black women in the Fortune 500 ranking of America’s largest companies. This is notable because it is the first time in history that this has happened. In fact, despite making up nearly seven per cent of the U.S. workforce, only four Black women have ever held the top position at a Fortune 500 company.
Black women are woefully underrepresented in leadership positions in North American businesses. A recent study from the UBC Sauder School of Business finds that stereotypes about Black women put them at a serious disadvantage in the workplace.
Stereotypes such as the “angry Black woman trope” perpetuate the assumption that Black women are hostile, aggressive, overbearing, and ill-tempered. These stereotypes are also extended to Black women in leadership roles.
In this Q&A, UBC Sauder Assistant Professor and co-author of the study, Dr. Jon Evans (he/him), discusses the research findings as well as some insights for supervisors to address these biases.
How was this study conducted?
For the study, we recorded videos of actors — Black and white, men and women — who played employees receiving negative performance feedback from their supervisor.
In the first series of videos, the actors showed they disagreed with the negative feedback, but they didn’t display anger; in another series, they raised their voices and made clear they were angry. In each case, the actors followed the exact same script; the only differences were their race and gender.
Then, we recruited more than 300 study participants to watch one of the videos, then answer three categories of questions about the employee’s response:
- Was the response the result of internal or external factors (i.e., was it the person or the situation that triggered the behaviour?)
- Is the employee a high performer?
- Does the employee have potential to be a great leader?
What did you find?
We found that when the employee was a Black woman, participants were more likely to attribute her anger to internal factors rather than external ones. Black women also received lower performance ratings and leadership evaluations.
Interestingly, there were no differences between Black and white men, which implies the stereotype is specific to Black women. What’s more, the race and gender of the participants who answered the questions did not affect the results — in other words, Black women were just as likely as white men to be influenced by the stereotype.
To eliminate the possibility of bias based on the actors’ physical appearances, a second, similar experiment was conducted using only women voice actors. The participants were not told the race of the audio clip actor, but we did use traditionally Black (Lakeisha) and white (Claire) names, and more than 97 per cent of participants correctly identified the race of the voice actor. Again, participants were more likely to attribute Black women’s anger to personal characteristics, which in turn led to poorer rankings when it came to performance and leadership potential.
What do these results suggest about the effects of this stereotype?
Participant responses suggest that the “angry Black woman” stereotype can generate significant negative effects on career progression and contribute to the feeling of being constrained at work.
It seems likely that someone facing this stereotype would experience a lot of stress and anxiety about those moments when some expression of anger is natural and maybe very important to a workplace situation. The act of suppressing one’s true self at work is going to negatively impact relationships, dealing with difficult circumstances, performance, and ultimately advancement.
What are some ways supervisors can address these biases?
We hope that providing research about the impacts of racism, such as this harmful stereotype, can be helpful in addressing its effects. First, research suggests that when people are made aware of different biases, they are more likely to recognize and challenge them. Thus, if supervisors can learn about the effects this bias has on them, they can be more mindful and better equipped to examine their own conclusions about expressed anger at work. We recommend asking questions to learn about the circumstances surrounding the event, rather than relying upon quick judgments.
We also believe that this information can strengthen allyship efforts. Potential allies can intervene in these types of situations by asking questions about the external circumstances and challenging assumptions made about others.