An upside to the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype?

February 16, 2012

For centuries, the angry black female has been a pervasive stereotype in the United States. Sadly, this overly simplified opinion may be just as inescapable today as it was during the slave era. A new book by Tulane professor Melissa Harris-Perry, for instance, suggests that anger is still one of the most ubiquitous stereotypes faced by black women in modern society. Pepsi was criticized for further perpetuating this negative perception by depicting a black woman kicking, shoving and punishing her husband for cheating on his diet in a Super Bowl commercial. Even America’s first lady must address the stereotype: In a recent television interview on CBS, Michelle Obama denied the “angry black woman” depiction of herself that emerged in some coverage following the release of The Obamas , a book by Jodi Kantor.

But while this longstanding and unfair stereotype is typically seen as a negative one, standing in for abrasive, brash and even ill-tempered, it’s also consistent with qualities we often associate with leadership, such as being decisive, aggressive and resolute. Preconceived ideas of black women as dominant and assertive may hurt when it comes to her romantic relationships or her access to coveted movie roles in Hollywood, and may even be exploited on reality television shows such as Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta”or VH-1’s “Love and Hip Hop.” But when it comes to leadership roles, this stereotype may actually help.

I’ll admit it may seem odd that being labeled “angry” could serve any black person well. Let’s face it, leaders of the Civil Rights movement likely adopted a non-violent stance for both moral and practical reasons.

But in a recent study I conducted with Robert Livingston and Ella Washington of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, we found that black women leaders who displayed dominant behavior when interacting with subordinates got more favorable reviews than their white female or black male counterparts who behaved the same way. In fact, black women were evaluated comparably to white male leaders who displayed similarly dominant and assertive behavior. 

Existing studies have shown that professional white men have been granted greater status and power when they’ve expressed anger rather than sadness. Our findings suggest that black women may benefit from such expressions, too. In other words, because assertiveness and dominance are stereotypical characteristics for black women, they may not provoke the same backlash as they would for white women and black men.

Extensive research stretching back to the early 1970s has shown that white women leaders and managers who behave in ways associated with men are likely to suffer significant negative repercussions and are often yoked with belittling names that rhyme with ‘stitch.’ Similarly, a black male leader who raises an eyebrow or even an inflection in his voice can be perceived as ‘uppity’ — a label that is threatening to some and outright menacing to others.

Of course, this is not to suggest that black women should show up at their corporate jobs and suddenly start stomping their feet and wagging their fingers. The stereotype may have some previously unrecognized — and even surprising — advantages in top leadership positions, but a black woman’s journey up the corporate ladder can be arduous, to say the least. It is wrought with obstacles colored by the subtle and blatant hostilities thrown at her because of the combination of her race and her gender.

After all, if the upside of the “angry black female” stereotype was powerful enough to overcome such hostilities and biases, women in top business leadership positions would not be so scarce. According to Catalyst, black women make up only 3 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies. There is only one black female chief executive in the entire Fortune 500 — Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox — and when she was named in 2009, she became the nation’s first for companies on that list.

Still it may not be an accident that Burns’ leadership style helps to illustrate our findings. Burns has been described by her colleagues as candid, forthright and exhibiting a no-nonsense approach when communicating with her peers and colleagues. According to The New York Times, in Burns’ speech at her inaugural annual meeting at Xerox in 2010, she described the company’s culture as “terminal niceness” and encouraged her employees to be more frank when exchanging ideas with one another. Fortune has called her “hard-charging and blunt,” quoting Burns talking about her “big mouth” and saying that “patience is not one of my strengths.”

The counterintuitive advantage we found in our research about black women and stereotypes may not be enough to open the gates for more women like Ursula Burns on its own. And surely, the advantage is slight compared to the barriers such negative stereotypes have long imposed. But if it helps aspiring black female leaders find a way to embrace the elements of their personality or leadership style that they might otherwise try to hide, perhaps it will help pave the way for more women to join Burns in the future.

Ashleigh Shelby Rosette is an associate professor of management and Center of Leadership and Ethics scholar at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

More from On Leadership:

Mean girls at work

The rolodex that redefined power

A love note to the workaholic

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