Friday, October 12, 2012

Angry Black Men, Aggessive White Women and Ursula Burns

What do 18 female CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies and President Obama have in common? They are examples of social hierarchy reversal – instances of members of low-status social groups ascending to high-status positions.
Dr. Robert W. Livingston, social psychologist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, investigates the dynamics of social hierarchy reversal at the intersection of race and gender. He combined the results of five of his published papers in one captivating talk.

When do individuals defy social hierarchy? Here are top three findings from Dr. Livingston that fascinated me most.

The Teddy Bear Effect
Black men who attain high-power positions are most likely to display competence, credentials, diligence and…disarming mechanisms. Some of these are behaviors like smiling, displaying erudition and dressing conservatively. Other disarming mechanisms are physical attributes, like a lighter skin tone or babyfaceness. Yes, babyfaceness! Dr. Livingston found that the Black CEO’s were more babyfaced than their white counterparts. He also found that babyfaceness correlated with success in terms of salary and company revenue for Black male CEO’s, but not for their White counterparts.

Essentially, to succeed, Black men had to appear warmer, less threatening and less dominant in addition to being exceedingly competent, credentialed and diligent. This is not limited to the business world – Dr. Livingston investigated and found similar requirements in the political realm, and even in professional sports!

Agency Penalty
When women act tough and take control they are punished for it, while men are not. Alice Eagly and Steven Karau published the first study on this subject in the early 1990’s and since then the body of research has grown, all of it demonstrating a social ‘agency penalty’ for women who act assertive, angry or self-promoting, because doing so violates prescriptive stereotypes that a woman should be warm and docile. It is astounding and outrageous that all of this research only included White women! 

If White women and Black men are both punished for acting dominant and displaying agency… what about Black women? Do they face even tougher penalties or do the race and gender ‘cancel each other out’? Dr. Livingston ran a number of experiments to try and get at this question. One included a bio and picture of a senior executive with a scenario in which the executive dealt with an under-performing employee. The phrases the person used in dealing with the employee either demonstrated agency (i.e. “I demand”) or a communal orientation (i.e. “I encourage you ”). Respondents evaluated the executive as a leader along multiple dimensions. 

Lo and behold, tough White female bosses and tough Black male bosses were not well-received, but both White male and Black female bosses got away with the toughness.

The One Black Female CEO
The audience was skeptical on the last point. Really? Black women are not penalized for showing agency and toughness? Then why is the outspoken Ursula Burns of Xerox, the only Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company?

Dr. Livingston had asked this question too, though most he could say is that the effects of race combined with gender are complex. His most recent work suggests that there is actually a higher penalty to Black women for failure. He suggested that both getting a ‘free pass’ on agentic behavior and experiencing ‘double jeopardy’ for mistakes is caused by being marginalized but not stigmatized. While stigmatized groups, like Black men or White women are marked, targeted and prominent, marginalized groups are invisible, ignored and irrelevant. Also a bleak picture.

It was clear from all the unanswered questions and the audience reactions that race is not being explored nearly enough in conversations about gender. Truly, it is time to stop saying “gender” and meaning White middle-class women. Today’s conversation was an enlightening beginning of a new WAPPP series focused on the intersection of race and gender, and while I would prefer being neither marginalized nor stigmatized, I look forward to learning more. 

Anya Malkov is an MPP2 at the Harvard Kennedy School, a WAPPP Cultural Bridge Fellow, and an alumna of From Harvard Square to the Oval Office.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I wish I was still at HKS to attend more of these events/discussions. My fellow female African-American classmates and I used to get together for dinner once a month to discuss or experiences on such topics and fears for what we would experience post-HKS. Thanks for continuing to keep us alums informed!