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NU study looks at role of black women in the workplace

Stephanie Yang

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A recent study conducted by Kellogg researchers found black female leaders who are dominant and assertive in the workplace are more likely to be accepted by their colleagues than white women and black men who act in a similar fashion.

The study was carried out by Robert Livingston, a Kellogg assistant professor; Ella Washington, a Kellogg doctoral student and Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a professor at Duke University. According to the study, white women and black men in the workplace are socially condemned for acting assertively in leadership situations, but black women and white men are generally shown more leniency.

“Our women leaders are held to different standards than our men leaders,” Washington said.

Washington said they used an online sample pool of participants to conduct the study. The participants were shown a picture of a hypothetical leader as an example subject. They were then given a scenario in which the fictitious person in charge handled a leadership situation, Washington said. Eight different types of leaders were assessed by the participants with varying characteristics of gender, color and either a more assertive or more passive leadership style, according to an article published in February on Kellogg Insight.

Washington said researchers obtained participant reactions to the leaders based on a list of questions. According to an April 20 PsychCentral article, former studies have shown that white men are associated with a dominant leadership role more than women. In the Kellogg study, participants concluded that assertive white women were worse leaders. However, Washington said people did not have as many issues with dominant black women leaders.

“I don’t think it gives (black women) an advantage, but I do think it gives them a little more leeway in certain situations,” Washington said.

Washington said the situation is not necessarily “clean-cut.” She said if these stereotypes made it easier for black women to succeed at work, there would be more black women leaders.

“We have to look at things a little more (intensely) than what was previously thought,” she said.

Washington said businesses could apply the findings of this research to leaders in their organizations. She said becoming aware of these differences in stereotypes could affect how higher-position workers manage their subordinates.

“It’s just about being cognizant of the different types of leaders,” Washington said.

In the article on Kellogg Insight, Livingston said he plans to expand research on this study and pursue field studies of existing women leaders. He said in the article he hopes to gain a better understanding of different social identities in leadership roles.

Washington said studies have historically focused on white men and have expanded to encompass white women as well. However, she said there is a lack of information on the leadership styles of different races and how they intersect with gender. She said this absence of information led them to explore this particular subject and that studies like these could lead to better understanding of race and gender among leaders.

“There are a lot of underrepresented populations in academic research,” Washington said. “(Now) people are more interested in race.”

Communication senior Kamau Massey, founder of NU’s Minority Business Association, said because of the constraints women and minorities face in the workplace, he was not surprised by the study’s findings.

“Dealing with stereotypes (is) one of the consistent issues that women especially are confronted with in the workplace,” Massey said.

However, Massey said society is transitioning in these views. He said pre-existing notions of people of color and female roles in the workplace will eventually be broken down.

“In the future we are going to see a lot of changes in these stereotypes,” Massey said. “We are entering a time period where women are graduating from universities at increasingly higher rates, more so than men, especially women of color.”

Tanya Lindsay, a first-year Kellogg graduate student, said the study was interesting to her, but she doesn’t completely agree with the findings. She said regardless of race or gender, a leader who can deliver results will be successful and that subordinates’ perceptions of a leader is essential to his or her standing.

“You just have to be aware of how that (leadership) style resonates in the company culture,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay said leaders vary in how they lead their employees, and understanding this will help companies best support different leadership styles.

“I think we will see hopefully … a better and more nuanced understanding of how different people lead across gender lines and across race lines,” she said.

syang@u.northwestern.edu

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