Ashleigh Shelby Rosette: Can an Agentic Black Woman Get Ahead?

Posted: August 3, 2012 by jennroig in English, Interviews
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Ashleigh Shelby Rosette

This interview is the unedited version of the original Spanish version which was originally published by AmericaEconomia on February 14, 2012.

Ashleigh Shelby Rosetteis a researcher and professor at the Duke University. Her paper Can an Agentic Black Woman Get Ahead? was published by the Psychological Science Journal and it focuses on observing how black female senior executives are perceived inside the organizational world in the USA.
By force, both the research and the interview repeatedly refer to Ursula Burns, Xerox CEO, as the only black female CEO of the Fortune’s 500.

You research pointed to the fact that in the US, white and afroamerican female leaders are perceived differently. Is that equally applicable to public administration figures such as Condoleezza Rice and Angela Merkel and corporate leaders such as Ursula Burns (Xerox) and Virginia M. Rometty (IBM)?

I’m not sure that our data can specifically speak to whether or not female leaders, black female leaders, would be perceived comparably to white males or would be perceived differently from white female, in public administration. I don’t know that our data answers that, wouldn’t speculate in that arena. Our data looks at business leaders. I don’t know wheter or not it would extrapolate to public administration or non profit organizations.

Is there any research focusing on how women are perceived in business environments when behaving agentically, if they are neither white nor black, but Asians, Native-Americans or Latinas? Could you offer some opinion on the matter?

I have conducted research that has examined … compared to whiteness, blackness, Hispanicness and to Asianness. However, I have not looked specifically at Asian women or at Latinas or Native-American women. We were the first, to be honest, we weren’t aware of any studies at all that studied anything except white women. The fact that we were studying African Americans was kind of groundbreaking, there was no previous research that we were aware of that specifically studied agency in regard to any other race except for white women.

If you ask me an opinion, I would suspect that dominance would be comparably proscribed for Asian women as it is for white women. I would suspect that Latina women would be more confortably compared to black women. Whereas there’s an agency penalty for white women to behave dominantly I would suspect that a similar agency penalty would happen for Asian women. As black women have more lattitud with regard to their behavior, I would expect Latino women would also have that lattitud simply based on culture, the expectations of the culture in which those women are judged.

Do you have any remarks on how the cultural setting of an organization, or a country, could affect the perception of female leaders in general?

I think certain countries are much more accepting a female leader than are other countries. I think you have different stereotypes as you go from country to country. There’s a spectrum of favor by femininity and masculinity in terms of what’s acceptable in a leadership role. In certain countries, regardless of race, religion, class, women simply would not hold leadership roles, period. But in other cultures there’s a lot more lattitud and the fact that we can even talk about it, it’s a whole lot.

So, I think that culture would definitely play a role with regard to our findings. Our findings are specific to the United States, and we had to put that concept on it. Culture is the lens through which we view the world, different cultures view female leaders quite differently.

Could you elaborate on that, what kind of cultures would be more receptive of female leaders and which would not?

Cultures have various spectrums, various cultural values. Often we think on how individualist this culture is, or how collectivist this culture is, or how hierarchical a culture is, or how egaliterian a culture is. Just as we have that type of spectrum on those types of values, I think there’s also a spectrum on femininity and masculinity. Some cultures are more masculine, some others are more feminine. So cultural settings can definitely affect on various stereotypes.

One important part of culture is religion. And catholicism is very important among the Hispanic population, which is significantly growing in the US. Would you indicate any relation between religion and the perception of leaders? To what extent the role of religion can be relevant?

Even though we didn’t necessarily looked at religion, I think religion could potentially, perhaps, be a factor on how women are perceived differently. We had John F. Kennedy and he was the first Catholic president ever, and that was groundbreaking sort to speak. I think in the current presidencial election relition is also playing a big role. But in our study we did not examined religion explicitly.

The current economic crisis has resulted in a surge, rather a preference for female leadership -e.g. Christine Lagarde (IMF), Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir (Iceland’s Prime Minister), all the female head of commissions at the EU Commission. Do you think this current crisis have affected the perception of black female leaders as well?

Regarding the rise or prominence of women in these top senior positions such as Christine Lagarde in the IMF, I think what we are seeing here is tha there can be a female leader in advantage sometimes, I think this rise of the respect in the feminization of leadership and the feminization of management, because the conceptualization of successful leadership is changing as to incorporating once was pressumed communal abilities and people are starting to value those communal abilities. They are trying to value this relationship that element enacts, the nurturing aspect of leadership. And meanwhile we start to de-value the directive, authoritarian type of leadership. I think that there’s definitely a rise in feminization of management with regards to people in general, not just in the US, but in many countries, they are actually starting to value the skills that women can bring to the table and that may not have been something that they valued previously.

Your research also points to a correlation in the perception of white male leaders and black female leaders. But some opinions indicate that this crisis has negatively affected the image of white male leaders who are neing perceived now as risky, and blamed for not preventing and even triggering the crisis. How that might affect your established parallel between black women in leadership positions and white men?

I think there’s a big difference between black women and white men especially in the US. When you think of the prototype of leadership you don’t think of a black woman, you think of a white men. And because that is what we expect, I don’t think black women would also be perceived as risky or blamed for not preventing these economic failures or because they were not in the position to take these decisions.

I guess what I’m saying is black women can behave similarly to white men without being negatively evaluated. But black women have to be in those top positions in order to benefit from this behavior and unfortunately the numbers aren’t there. If we look at the Fortune 500 leaders, there’s only one black woman who holds that position, Ursula Burns.

If we look at congress, there are not that many black women readers and I dont think it’s any on the Senate. There might be only a handful on the House of Representatives. So, I don’t think that black women would get seen in the same way as white men, because pretty simple they are not occupying the positions.

In Latin America and the US we have seen a diversion from the classic pattern of white male leaders. In the US, the election of Obama is an unprecedented fact. In Latin America, Hugo Chavez -mestizo- in Venezuela and Evo Morales -indigenous- in Bolivia have also broken the traditional pattern. They all behave differently as leaders. How would you say the distinctive social, cultural and historical background could influence on the perceptions of their performance?

You are asking me if the fact that Barack Obama is the first black president, whether or not his race enforces how is he perceived as president. IS that right?

The fact that we have called Barack Obama the first black president, says that his culture, as a black man, as a mulato man, influences how we perceive what he’s doing. Some would argue that he’s being held to a different standard than some of the presidents we had. The thing he broke the rule of the traditional pattern, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t expect that tradition pattern to occur. For example, if you would have asked me who you think is going to be the next president of the US, what is going to be his race? I would say it’s probably going to be a white person. Why? Because that’s the race of all that we’ve known except for this one. Now, if after Barack Obama our next president happen to be Latino, and then an Asian, and then again a black presindent, and then the next Hispanic, and then if you would ask me: what’s going to be the race of the next president? Then I would say I don’t know because I would have this pattern of difference. But the thing is one person not necessarily changes our expectations. It takes a pattern to change our expectations of who do we expect to hold the role of president of the US. I think yes, it has broken the pattern, but that doesn’t mean that we expect to happen again. Usually we think it’s going to revert to the way it used to be.

I would say that would be definitely the case here.

But yes, his race, his culture, definitely plays a huge influence in terms of how is he perceived and seen as president. He’s not just perceived as the US president, he’s perceived as the first black president of the US. And by putting that “first black” label on him that brings in all that culture, all global background that says how is he going to be evaluated differently than has other presidents been evaluated, because he is breaking the pattern.

As well, there are foreign presidents that are breaking that paradigm, in the Western world at least, of the image of an old white male as head of state. Do you think the administration of Obama, the very fact of him holding the presidency, has resulted in some sort of change in that perception? How’s that current perception could be described in the first place and whether or not Obama has change it?

I think what I’m saying is no. Or rather I’m saying yes and no. He has changed it such that wow, this actually can happen in the US! A black man can be president! So outside it’s the same: wow, a mulato like Hugo Chavez can be president! But, if you asks me who the next president is going to be, I wouldn’t necessarily say it will be a black man. I would expect to be a white man because that’s what we’ve seen and that’s we’ve known. One person does not change the pattern, after 44 presindents all white men. The fact of having one young black man in the presidency doesn’t make me think that now I’m going to have another black man president.

Because tradition, in the way in which we expect our leaders to be, doesn’t necessarily change with one person. It helped, and it can start a trend and a change, but I don’t think that one person holding that role as symbolic as it may be, monumental as it may be, inspiring as it may be, I don”t think that we can say that one person is necessarily going to start a trend of leaders with different kinds of background. When we have seen five or six leaders with different backgrounds, then that may be the case.

What happens if we substitute the word “expectations” by the word “judgement”, or “appreciation”? How the general appreciation tends to construct around leaders who break the paradigm? What happens when they go wrong? Did they go wrong because they were not fit enough for the job or because they don’t meet the mainstream paradigm?

That’s the eternal trouble. That’s the burden that people people of different races, genders, religions laways have to bear. Because they fundamentally can’t ask that question. I think a part of it will sometimes be attributed to their difference. But the thing is that it is so ambiguous, in terms of what you attributed to, that it’s something that is always going to be in the back of people’s mind but as soon as they call them on it, as soon as they recognize it, as soon as they acknowledge it, then people stand back from things like that. You will really like to think that they always are going to be judge on their merit, in terms of how they did solid on their performance, but history tells that it usually is not the case.

Considering the number of female presidents in Latin America -former Chilean president Bachelet, Dilma Rouseff in Brazil, Cristina Kirchner in Argentina and Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica – do you have any comments on how these Latin American female leaders are perceived in the US?

Unfortunately I don’t know enough about it, I’m aware of them, but in terms of general or broad perception as leaders, I couldn’t necessarily speak about that.

Moreover, do you think it could open the field of research in terms of leadership perception? Could you refer to any previous results in this regard?

Actually I am working on some studies related to the subject. The thing is that whether we like it or not, our country, our labor force, our managers, the people we work with, everyone is much more diverse. Therefore, there’s a need to understand how diversity works in our organizations, our corporations, our states, and in our country. I think because of that, there’s going to be an increase in the study of the variables. Not just looking at the variables in isolation, not looking at race only, or gender only, or religion only, or class only. I think as the country is becoming more diverse, because our social identities are intersecting, we are going to really start understanding how morphous identities work influence our workforce, how they influence how we perceive our leaders, and how they influence how the job is done in terms of productivity in organizational settings. I will hope in academia I would expect to definitely going to see more studies that are looking at various intersecting identities as opposed to fewer studies.

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