In September 2008, a picture of a serious looking Michelle Obama appeared on the cover of Radar Magazine above the tag line, “What’s So Scary About Michelle Obama?”  The accompanying article described as, “An Insider’s Guide to America’s Next First Lady,” provided a list of FAQs and answers like,“Why is she so angry?” (“She’s not angry; she is passionate”).

According to Columbia Business School professor Katherine Phillips, this cover story highlights a common cultural image of African-American women – that they are controlling, demanding, angry, and threatening.

Women are not supposed to behave in these kinds of dominant ways, according to cultural norms.

The Backlash Effect

Instead, Phillips explained in her recent talk at Stanford, women are expected to be friendly and nurturing and to behave demurely. Consequently, when women act in assertive ways they are penalized for violating culturally sanctioned ideas about femininity.  For example, Phillips noted one study which found that when women talk up their skills and abilities during a job interview it decreases how much people like them and decreases their likelihood of being hired compared to men who engage in the same self-promoting behavior.

This backlash effect, or the negative evaluation of women for displaying dominant or leadership characteristics, is a well established finding…but only for white women.  It turns out, Phillips said, “that when you look at this research it’s all done on white women compared to white men.  There is no consideration of other women like African-American or Asian women.”  Intrigued by this lack of research, Phillips decided to look at how race and gender come together and shape the backlash effect.

Race, Gender, and Stereotypes

When she began her investigation, Phillips had reason to suspect that the backlash effect might play out differently for black females than for white females because of their distinctly disadvantaged status as members of not just one but two less powerful groups – African-Americans and women.  In fact, conventional thinking in academic circles held that black women have a harder time than all other groups because they face a kind of double jeopardy (racism + sexism).  However, as Phillips’ research got underway she discovered something counterintuitive – in leadership contexts, black women appeared to be helped, not held back, by the angry black woman stereotype.


Kahty Phillips

An initial study conducted by Phillips and her colleagues that examined the desirability of certain characteristics among different groups (white women, black women etc.) found that people want white women to be nicer and more communal (agreeable, compassionate, warm) than white men and want white men to be more dominant than white women.  In contrast, people do not expect black women to be more communal than black men.  Instead, people were more open to black women possessing dominant traits than they were to black men possessing them.  From this first study, Phillips concluded that societal stereotypes about how white and black women ought to behave mean that in any given social situation black women can be less nice and more domineering than white women are allowed to be.


After determining that black women are given more leeway than white women to be independent and aggressive, Phillips decided to then see how these stereotypes interact with the backlash effect.  In a second, follow up study, Phillips and her colleagues had evaluators rate the likeability and hireability of two equally dominant female job candidates who only differed from each other by race (white vs. black).  The results of the study showed a clear backlash effect for the dominant white, female candidate – she was less liked and less likely to be hired.  The dominant black, female candidate fared much better – she was more liked and more likely to be hired.

African-American Women Don’t Always Face Double Jeopardy

Phillips’ findings are startling because they upend the widespread belief that African-American women always face a double jeopardy.  What her results show is that in certain situations, like leadership contexts, the angry black women stereotype might give black women a leg up over other groups of women.  As Phillips explained, such stereotypes, “may actually free black women to display the kind of dominance and agentic traits that white women are proscribed from doing…black women may be in a unique position to, in fact, step into leadership positions, be embraced in leadership positions, and hopefully there may be some good outcomes out of that.”

While some in the audience welcomed Phillips results as cause for celebration, Phillips cautioned that the way race, gender, as well as class interact is extremely complex and that more research needs to be done to understand how these social forces play out for different people in different places.  For example, Phillips noted, the angry black woman stereotype might produce negative outcomes for poor black women trying to obtain entry-level jobs.  Phillips hopes that her study will lead to more empirical research on questions about the intersection of race and gender in the business world.


Katherine Phillips the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at the Columbia Business School. Professor Phillips is an alum of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and was a visiting faculty member in Organizational Behavior at the Stanford GSB as well as a visiting scholar at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford (CASBS) from 2010-2011. Phillips’ talk was co-sponsored by the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity

Originally Published in Gender News, a publication of The Clayman Institute for Gender Research on Monday, September 5, 2011