How often have you heard of a man being described as ‘bossy’? Exactly. And we’ve known for a long time that when women exhibit assertive behaviour, they are liable to provoke negative reactions that simply aren’t aroused when men exhibit exactly the same kind of behaviour.
And, of course, we’ve also known for a long time about the prejudicial attitudes that have hindered the rise of BAME employees to leadership positions.
But here’s an interesting finding from a study published a few years ago that Stacie CC Graham has drawn attention to in a recent article – a study which found that while white female leaders suffer the ‘bossy’ backlash, black female leaders apparently don’t. And while, as we know, white male leaders are not penalised for assertive behaviour, black male leaders are.
Strange. And, as Graham asks, if the findings are truly representative of universal workplace attitudes, how come there’s only one black woman, Ursula Burns, chairwoman and chief executive of Xerox, currently leading a Fortune 500 company?
But perhaps the findings are simply indicative of the complexity of the unconscious biases that can influence how all of us react and respond to those we often unknowingly categorise as ‘different’. A big part of the problem is the sheer number of different factors that can generate an unconscious bias – gender, race, age, social class, political and religious beliefs, even size or hair colour, and the list goes on.
So any attempt to plot a comprehensive matrix of all the possible unconscious biases that could be in play in any one situation may well be an impossibility. Different biases can interact and compete. But understanding – and raising awareness of – the phenomenon still has to be an essential part of any strategy that aims to enhance diversity amongst those seated around board rooms everywhere.