Women face a double bind when we are in leadership positions – we are expected to be competent and authoritative. But, we face a dominance penalty when we are authoritative and also face questions about our competence when we are not authoritative. For Asian women, we face a different stereotype than for other women. Recent research show that Asian women are perceived less fit for leadership regardless of the level of assertiveness because of stereotypes of our subservience. White women face a dominance penalty and Black women face less backlash. Workplaces would benefit to adopt policies and practices that account for the intersection of race and gender in leadership.
Women face a double bind when we are in leadership positions – we are expected to be competent and authoritative. We face a dominance penalty when we are authoritative as others see a women’s authoritative behavior as a violation of gender stereotypes. However, when we are not authoritative, we also face questions about our competence.
Prior research on the dominance penalty were largely 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.
The dominance penalty is not universal across all race
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 Black women’s authoritativeness is generally less remembered or recalled. Another explanation is the stereotype holding Black women to more aggressive (and more consistent with strong leadership styles), so that Black women’s authoritative behavior is stereotype-consistent.
A recent study investigated the dominance penalty and stereotypes for Asian women. Similar to Black women, Asian women are also minorities and female, but stereotypes tend to associate Asian American women with being deferential and passive – traits that are not expected of leaders.
White women received the largest dominance penalty
The study revealed that regardless of whether the White woman was described as having a brutally honest or overly polite interpersonal style, she received the largest dominance penalty. The White woman was viewed as being significantly pushier and more ruthless than the White man, Asian man, or Asian woman. White women may not avoid backlash by being nicer.
Asian women perceived as less fit for leadership regardless of interpersonal style
Asian women received less backlash than White women consistent with the theory that the behavior of women of color is less socially visible and remembered. While this relative invisibility may provide Asian women more freedom to behave authoritatively, it also disadvantaged Asian women in being noticed and remembered to be hired or promoted. Whether described as brutally honest or overly polite, the Asian woman was perceived as significantly less fit for leadership than the White woman, White man, or Asian man.
What it means for Asian women
Asian women was perceived as less fit for leadership regardless of interpersonal style suggests that Asian women may not avoid questions about their leadership by being more assertive.
Perceived racial stereotypes shape disadvantages. Women of color struggle more than White women to be heard and remembered in the workplace. Asian women’s invisibility is made worse by stereotypes about our subservience.
Workplaces should incorporate policies and practices to account for the intersection of gender and race in their diversity and leadership efforts. A blanket approach for all women would yield limited results.
Asian American Women and the Dominance Penalty (PDF of study)
How Confidence Is Weaponized Against Women (Harvard Business Review)
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