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The Future of Work

Why The Gender Leadership Gap Is So Much Worse For Women Of Color

For black, Hispanic, and Asian women, negative stereotypes and unconscious bias have widened the gender gap.

Why The Gender Leadership Gap Is So Much Worse For Women Of Color
[Photo: Flickr user Al Ibrahim]

"From corporate boardrooms to the halls of Congress, from universities to the courts, from religious institutions to philanthropic organizations, men are simply much more likely than women to be leaders." This, according to a new report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

This isn't news to anyone who has been paying attention, but this new study does bring the persistence and complexity of such underrepresentation into more focus.

The report, titled "Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership," examines the environment where leadership develops and was written by AAUW vice president for research Catherine Hill; senior researcher Kevin Miller; research associate Kathleen Benson; and research intern Grace Handley. They contend that no amount of leaning in can close the systemic gender gap in the top ranks of organizations. That's partly because factors such as race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and age make for unique experiences for any women who tries to rise to leadership.

"There must be something inherent in the system that’s working against them," the authors write, because we know that this is not a pipeline problem. There are more women working today than ever before (55% of the total global workforce). Women earn the majority of university degrees according to data from Census reports. And both men and women score similarly in their ability to drive business, according to a study by DDI.

Yet female leadership numbers remain dismal. According to Catalyst only 5% of companies in Standard and Poor’s 500 had women CEOs in 2015. Similar disparities occur in the nonprofit sector, government, unions, religious institutions, and academia. "Subtler problems like hostile work environments, negative stereotypes about women in leadership, and bias also keep women out of the top spots," they write, "Unconscious or implicit bias can cloud judgment in ways people are not fully aware of."

For women of color, this gap is even wider. Fewer than 3% of board directors at Fortune 500 companies are Asian, black, and Hispanic women, according to the Catalyst report. These minority groups of women make up 17% of workers in S&P 500 companies but fewer than 4% of executive officials and managers. While data about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) women leaders isn’t readily available, the report’s authors cite a recent study that revealed women who identified as LGBT on their resumes received 30% fewer callbacks than other women.

The Underlying Problem

The report’s authors point out that gender, race, and age are often subject to stereotyping. Even positive stereotypes can hurt, such as when a man doesn’t exhibit the typical aggression often assigned to male leadership. On the flip side, women are assumed to be caregivers and therefore given an armload of "housekeeping" tasks in the office —even by other women. Then, the damage is done. "Once a stereotype has been adopted, it becomes a filter through which we selectively recall and use information," the authors write.

Stereotypes About Race And Ethnicity

"Gender and racial stereotypes overlap to create unique—and uniquely powerful—stereotypes," the authors write. Another recent study found that races are perceived as gendered, such as Asian being more feminine or black more masculine than white.

The authors observe that racial stereotypes confuse how gender stereotypes are perceived. For example, most of the research on backlash against women’s leadership hasn’t focused on how women of color fare when their leadership style doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes.

There is one exception. A Harvard Business School study from 2012 found that behaviors such as when white women were self-promotional, angry, and used assertive language, they were more likely to feel a backlash. Black women, the same study found, weren’t penalized for these seemingly dominant behaviors. "The study does not imply that black women are not disadvantaged in leadership positions." the authors note, "rather, the specific ways in which they are disadvantaged clearly differ from the better-understood ways that white women leaders are disadvantaged."

Latinas are subject to a different set of preconceived biases. "Among college and university faculty, Latinas who behave assertively risk being seen as "angry" or "emotional," even when they reported that they were not angry—they just weren’t deferential," the report’s authors say. Nearly 60% of Latinas surveyed reported a backlash against expressing anger, they write, as well as being given a disproportionate amount of office "housework."

It’s complicated, the authors conclude, and there’s a significant need for more research on the impact of race and gender on leadership style.

Stereotype Threat

Regardless of race and ethnicity, the report observes that a meta-analysis of 69 studies on stereotypes and leadership revealed that stereotypes are predominately masculine, such as independence, aggression, competitiveness, rationality, dominance, and objectivity—all of which speak current expectations of leadership. When someone feels like they don’t have those traits, it affects their self-perception and their effectiveness at work.

A threat occurs when someone becomes aware they are being stereotyped in a negative way. The authors point out several studies that showed how negative stereotypes impacted individuals’ performance and working memory when they took on challenges in the areas in which they were negatively stereotyped. Threat like that is inherently bound with stress, anxiety, and disengagement, another Harvard study found, which can lead to a wide variety of negative attitudes and behaviors.

Fast Company has covered the results of a women leadership study that indicated it would take years to reach pay and leadership parity. The report’s authors contend that time alone won’t solve the gender leadership gap, but it is possible to change it sooner, rather than later. "Women’s representation in leadership will not increase substantially without major changes in the culture, policies, and practices of the organizations where women learn and work," the AAUW researchers concluded. "We can do a great deal to move beyond stereotypical notions about leadership."

Related: Selma Director Ava DuVernay Speaks About Lack Of Diversity In Hollywood

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