Research Findings

A Double Bind for Asian American Women in Leadership?

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November 11, 2019

Women face a double bind when they are in leadership positions. They are expected to be competent and authoritative, but others often see their authoritative behavior as overly dominant, and a violation of gender stereotypes. In other words, women face a “dominance penalty” when they act authoritatively, but they face questions about their competence when they do not act authoritatively. Research has documented this double bind in a number of settings, but these studies have by and large focused on white women. 

Recent research challenges the universality of the dominance penalty, and suggests that race and gender intersect to shape reactions to authoritative behavior. For example, recent studies have shown that in a professional workplace context, black women who demonstrate high levels of competence face less backlash when they behave authoritatively than do comparable white women or black men. 

One explanation is that non-white women’s authoritativeness is more socially acceptable because people with multiple subordinate identities experience intersectional invisibility.  Thus, non-white women’s dominance is less socially punished because their behavior is generally less noticed or recalled. Even when the context demands that a person be seen (e.g., the only person being considered for a promotion), non-white women’s authoritative behavior may be less memorable because they are less threatening to the gender and racial hierarchy. The argument is not that women of color never experience backlash (a lot of research shows that they do), but that white women’s authoritative behavior is more visible and thus more readily triggers backlash.

Another explanation emphasizes differences in stereotype content for black and white women. The argument is that there are unique stereotypes of black women that are more consistent with strong leadership styles. Because stereotypes hold black Americans to be more aggressive, black women’s authoritative behavior is read as stereotype-consistent while white women’s is read as stereotype-violating.

Our study investigated these explanations, intersectional invisibility and differences in stereotype content, by comparing evaluations of Asian American and white women job candidates.

Asian American women offer an intriguing case for studying the dominance penalty because, similar to black women, they also possess subordinate race and gender identities. However, stereotypes tend to associate Asian American women with being deferential and passive – traits that are incongruent with expectations for effective leaders.

Our experiment asked participants to evaluate a highly qualified candidate for promotion to a full professor position in an academic institution. The participants read a recommendation letter on behalf of the candidate and then answered questions about their perceptions of the candidate. The letter was very positive and described the candidate as having numerous accomplishments (e.g., over 40 publications, five well-received books, and winner of the MacArthur Genius Award). 

Participants were randomly assigned to read one of eight different versions of the letter. The details in the letter were the same for all participants, but the job candidate’s race (Asian American or White American), gender (man or woman), and interpersonal style (dominant behavioral style characterized as “brutally honest” or communal behavioral style characterized as “overly polite”) differed depending on the version of the letter participants received.  By keeping all of the qualifications the same and only varying the candidate’s race, gender, and interpersonal style, we were able to isolate the effect of race and gender bias on perceptions of the job candidate.

We used undergraduate students as our evaluators. Since we sought to identify forms of bias that arise as a consequence of being exposed to dominant cultural beliefs about race and gender, our study required participants who understand and recognize such beliefs.  College students have been shown to be ideal in this regard.

Our analyses revealed that regardless of whether the candidate was described as having a “brutally honest” or “overly polite” interpersonal style, the white woman received the largest dominance penalty. Participants evaluated the white woman as being significantly pushier and more ruthless than the white man, Asian man, or Asian woman.

Since Asian American women are stereotyped as more deferential than white women, one might have expected to find that when they violate that stereotype, they face as much or more of a dominance penalty than white women. The fact that they actually receive less backlash than white women is consistent with the theory that the behavior of women of color is less socially visible and remembered.

While this relative invisibility may ironically provide Asian women more freedom to behave authoritatively in some contexts, it is also a disadvantage when being noticed and remembered is essential to being hired and promoted. Unfortunately, we found evidence of this disadvantage in our results. Whether described as “brutally honest” or “overly polite” in the letter, the Asian woman was perceived by participants as significantly less fit for leadership than the white woman, white man, or Asian man.

The fact that the white woman received a dominance penalty and the Asian woman was perceived as less fit for leadership regardless of stated interpersonal style suggests that white women may not avoid backlash by being nicer and Asian women may not avoid questions about their leadership by being more assertive.

We also found no evidence of bias against Asian American men in this study context. This is good news, but it is important that future research examine whether our findings would hold in other workplace contexts since research has shown Asian American men to be underrepresented in executive positions. Workplaces that privilege aggressive leadership styles – e.g., law firms, Fortune 500 companies, tech startups – may be sites for bias against Asian men, since they are stereotyped as more feminine and deferential than other men.

We analyzed whether the participants’ own gender or race affected their perceptions of the candidates and we found no evidence of such effects.

Our study has implications for how racial stereotypes shape disadvantages. Women of color may struggle more than white women to be heard and remembered in the workplace. But stereotypes that associate Asian Americans with subservience and black American with lower competence have different implications for how this social invisibility matters.

Some research has shown that black women who lead successful organizations are evaluated comparably to their white and/or male counterparts while black women leaders of failing organizations are evaluated more harshly. In contrast to black women, whose social visibility is heightened by negative stereotypes about lack of competence, Asian women’s invisibility appears to be exacerbated by stereotypes about their subservience.

Given our research findings, workplaces would do well to adopt policies and practices that account for group-based invisibility and stereotypes in order to reduce the effects of bias on hiring and promotion.

Read More

Tinkler, Justine, Jun Zhao, Yan Li, and Cecilia L. Ridgeway, “Honorary Whites? Asian American Women and the Dominance Penalty,” Socius 2019.

Image: purchased license.

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