Chelsea G. remembers an awkward conversation with a boss.
“I was sat down by a boss once, I was told that ‘The girls don’t think you like them because you never smile,’ ” said Chelsea, who requested anonymity for this story. “Oh my God, why do I have to have this big huge smile on my face all the time?”
This was Chelsea’s first job out of college, already a year or two in the company. She was recently promoted and involved in social media and graphic design. She said she hears the comment often from men, but it was surprising that the comment was made by other women.
Chelsea, a black graphic designer working with a Chicago company full-time, started her career back in 2009, in her 20s, but didn’t realize her experiences back then were probably tied to the “angry black woman” stereotype until a decade later.
“I am a pretty stoic person. I’ll be the first to admit that,” said Chelsea. “So I just was like ‘Oh gosh, something must be wrong with me.’ I didn’t really think that maybe my actions are being perceived as a certain way because of my skin color. I don’t think I made that connection until I was much older and I was able to reflect on it more and hear about other people’s experiences and it was like, ‘Oh, OK, wow, so maybe that’s kind of what I was going through.’”
At the same job, her male coworker in marketing told her coworker and friend “he hopes to never ever have to work with me again, because I think I know everything, I have too many opinions, apparently,” recalls Chelsea.
“It was just such a shocking thing to hear,” said Chelsea. “I’m often told, even to this day, I carry myself very professionally. I’m certainly not a combative person in my opinion, with anyone, so, I feel like maybe a little bit of that was maybe him perceiving my opinions as being too assertive and direct but maybe also the fact that I was a woman probably had something to do with it, so it’s like a double whammy so to speak.”
Prior to her current job, Chelsea was also told she was “blunt” when she delivered feedback.
In her field, Chelsea has not had the opportunity to work with other black women and said she can count the number of black people she’s encountered in her career on less than one hand.
She called the “angry black woman” stereotype a “TV drama sort of stereotype” and cannot recall ever seeing a black person act “in what I would actually consider an aggressive and hostile manner in the workplace.”
“It just seems more like giving subtle opinions is sufficient enough to just be looked at negatively,” said Chelsea.
Experiences like Chelsea’s are not new and researchers from the University of Arizona, Hofstra University and the University of British Columbia studying anger in the workplace honed in on the “angry black woman” stereotype and black women face greater barriers because of it.
The study, “Race and reactions to women’s expressions of anger at work: Examining the effects of the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype,” co-authored by Daphna Motro, Jonathan Evans, Aleks Ellis and Lehman Benson III, is set to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
The study is part of a larger body of work that looks at the effects of different emotions in the workplace, said Ellis, head of the Department of Management and Organizations at the Eller College of Management in the University of Arizona.
Ellis said studies have shown that people view women more negatively when they express anger, because it doesn’t conform with the role expectations for women.
“We just expect women to kind of be more communal, more caring and expressions of anger kind of violate those expectations,” said Ellis.
They noticed that in the U.S. Fortune 500 list there were zero black female CEOs at the time, despite making up 7 percent of the workforce, said the study’s first author, Daphna Motro, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Hofstra University in New York.
“We thought there’s barriers for black women in the workplace that other women or other men don’t necessarily face,” said Motro. “We thought potentially one of these barriers is this stereotype that’s unique to black females.”
They introduced the “angry black woman” stereotype as a potential barrier to black woman’s abilities to gain leadership roles.
“The ‘angry black woman’ stereotype basically suggests that black women are seen as aggressive and hostile in their interactions with other people,” said Ellis.
They found the stereotype is constantly reinforced by the media.
Motro recalls seeing an article, describing Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, as “a thorn against the sweet English rose petal that is Mrs. Kate.”
Other examples include Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open, where she was fined for breaking her tennis racket, or coverage of Michelle Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“What’s interesting is that as a leader, expressing anger can actually help you at work. So if you get angry at an employee who is doing something unethical, for example, other people actually see that in a positive light,” said Ellis. “But what we’re suggesting here is that there may be bias against women, and in particular black women when they express anger at work.”
They conducted two experiments both studying the way an emotion, in this case anger, impacts the evaluation of a worker. For the first experiment, they brought in actors in their 20s to play the role of “Jordan,” a grocery store manager, who was either white or black male or white or black female, receiving negative feedback from their direct supervisor, always a white male. This interaction was videotaped and only the back of the supervisor’s head could be seen.
The video study had 302 undergraduate business students enrolled in business management courses at a large university in southwestern United States. The participants had an average age of about 21 years old and almost half were female. Over half were white, non-Hispanic, 21.5 percent were Hispanic, 12.3 percent Asian, 4 percent African-American/Black, and 5.6 percent other.
Before watching the video, participants read a copy of Jordan’s CV, which described him as a “resourceful grocery store manager with great experience in directing and managing store staff.”
In the video, participants watched Jordan react either with anger or neutral to his/her supervisor’s feedback that his/her performance as general manager had been “unsatisfactory” and had “not achieved the goals that upper management had set for him/her.”
When displaying anger, Jordan’s tone would increase, he/she shouted and yelled at their supervisor, he/she would furrow their brow, bang fists down on the table, throw hands up in outrage, and shift frequently in their seat. For the neutral acting, Jordan made the same statements but with an even tone and minimal gestures. The emotions were meant to be portrayed the same across the board
After watching the video of Jordan receiving performance feedback from their direct supervisor, participants evaluated Jordan on three criteria: perceptions of internal causality, performance evaluation, and leadership capability.
The first asked participants to think about how much Jordan’s reaction to feedback was internal or external. They found most participants attributed a black woman’s anger to internal causes, to who she is as a person.
“If you expressed anger at work I wouldn’t be likely to say, ‘Oh well she’s just an angry person.’ I might say, ‘Well you know maybe she had a hard day at work or maybe something happened.’ It was something about the situation,” said Ellis. “But for an African American woman, for a Black woman, an expression of anger is more likely to elicit internal attributions where I say ‘Oh well clearly, she’s just an angry person.’”
The second criteria asked participants to rate Jordan’s performance as an employee. Motro said the questions would ask how likely it is that the employee will advance in the company and if they will succeed. Overall all employees, despite gender or race, were rated around two out of seven in the scale, with women rated lower than their male counterparts and Black women rated lower than all others.
Finally, participants were asked to rate Jordan’s intelligence, competence, confidence and competitiveness, traits associated with a capable leader, Motro explained.
They found participants rated white females as more capable leaders than white males, but Black males more capable leaders than Black females; however overall they were all rated fairly low as capable leaders, averaging a rating of around three or four.
From these results, Ellis said they decided to focus the study on women in the second experiment, as Black men were not as affected.
They also looked to identify if the “angry Black women” stereotype was “activated” when participants listened to a person become angry, Motro said.
The second experiment asked 253 participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk–average age of about 36 years old, about half female, and almost 70 percent white non-Hispanic–to imagine they were a sales representative at a marketing company called “Insight Marketing.” They were instructed to listen to an audio recording of another female (Black or white, non-Hispanic) employee with “their” company, who came to speak with them, but were not told the topic of conversation in advance.
They gave participants information about the employee, including name, gender, and race and before listening to the audio clip, participants read the employee’s CV.
In the audio clip, participants received feedback from either Lakeisha Wilson, the Black employee or Claire Wilson, the white employee, about how they consistently show up late to work, emphasizing the unprofessionalism of arriving late, not taking any excuses and that next time “there would need to be a serious discussion about their future.” To display anger, the actor portraying Lakeisha/Claire would use a stern and hostile tone to sound annoyed and indignant, raising their voice throughout the clip. While in the neutral portrayal,
Lakeisha/Claire’s tone was calm and same throughout without increases or decreases.
Following the audio clip, participants were again asked to evaluate internal causality, employee’s performance and leadership capability; however, this time around they also asked participants the degree to which they think Black individuals as a whole are “loud and aggressive, hostile and violent.”
“What we found was that individuals who heard that a Black female was getting angry, they were more likely to say that black individuals were loud and aggressive and hostile and violent,” said Motro. “That’s what we would call an activation of that stereotype, because now those individuals are...actually rating traits associated with black individuals more highly than others, even though the behavior is exactly the same. So, the idea is that the stereotype is activated, now it’s more likely to inform our behavior, it’s come more to the forefront of our mind, and it’s more likely to lead to those perceptions of internal causality.”
In the final results of this study, on average, participants attributed Black female’s displays of anger to internal factors higher than the white female’s anger and rated the Black female displaying anger almost a whole degree lower in performance. Participants also evaluated Black women displaying anger as less capable leaders, rating them lower than the white female displaying anger.
Ellis made clear that “this is an unfounded stereotype, and there’s no evidence that Black women are actually more angry than other groups.”
Despite the barriers women, especially Black women, face in attaining leadership roles with the “think leader, think male” bias, Ellis said we are in a better place than 20 or 30 years ago, and studies have shown people react positively to women’s leadership styles, even a little more than men’s.
“One of the reasons is that the types of styles that people react positively to are more in line with how women approach work, and so people react really well to women leaders,” said Ellis.
In order to combat the stereotype, the researchers advocated for diversity and inclusivity training, as research has shown identifying the stereotype makes people less likely to be influenced by it.
“There’s a lot of research suggesting that once people are actually aware of stereotypes, they’re kind of usually less likely to influence our behavior, because we’re aware that we have this tendency to, kind of, evaluate, depending on the stereotype, evaluate this person more negatively, but once you’re aware of it, it’s less likely to affect you,” said Motro.
Motro hopes more studies can be conducted to bring attention to different stereotypes and address the unfair barriers minority populations face because of them.
“This is kind of an emerging field so it’s really important to us to hopefully spark interest in other stereotypes that maybe affect other populations, other minorities,” said Motro. “Once we bring attention to those stereotypes we can start working on chipping their negative influence away.”
During the George Floyd protest, Chelsea worked for a company that posted one of the “black squares” on social media to demonstrate solidarity, some might argue performatively. She was shocked to see an outpouring of outrage from former employees who denounced the company as they had experienced racism in the workplace during their time there. Chelsea said she had a good experience, but was disappointed with the response from the company since the Social Media Department was ignoring the comments.
“How can I feel comfortable and know that the company is going to have my back, if you’re going to pretend that this stuff never happened,” said Chelsea. She did bring it up, but was told “they’ll think about it” and nothing was done.
“I know people say, ‘We can talk about it’ but a lot of companies don’t want to talk about it. So I certainly think that’s an extremely important first step, learning how to amplify the voices of other people,” Chelsea said.
She hopes companies would bring people in to have a conversion, beyond just the “mandatory HR diversity workplace training that you have to do, because there’s not a conversation when you do that it’s just like a mandatory sort of thing.”
As opposed to others’ experience, Chelsea is grateful that she has seen significant upward mobility in her career and does not feel the need to change because of a stereotype.
“That’s all the more reason why I don’t feel like I need to tone myself down just because one person perceived my behavior to be a certain way when the general consensus seems to be that I am a very capable person,” Chelsea said. “So, hopefully, other women. No matter what their ethnic background is, they don’t feel like they have to quiet themselves, just to shine in the workplace.”