Opportunity & Access

How Race Influences and Amplifies Backlash Against Outspoken Women

When women break gender norms, the most negative reactions may come from people of the same race.

March 25, 2022

| by Nadra Nittle
Christine Blasey Ford swears in at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for her to testify about sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh. | Credit: REUTERS/Erin Schaff.

Attitudes about Christine Blasey Ford differed based on the race of respondents in the study. | REUTERS/Erin Schaff

When Christine Blasey Ford testified in 2018 that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were high school students, she elicited empathy and outrage. The reactions were strikingly similar to those that accompanied the testimony of Anita Hill nearly 30 years earlier, when she accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. In both cases, the women faced backlash in part because they were insisting on being heard — an exercise of agency often associated with masculinity. But did race also play a role in how they were perceived?

The answer is yes, according to a new paper coauthored by Brian Lowery, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. His research, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that “gender backlash” — negative reactions toward a woman who is perceived to be breaking gender norms — was more pronounced among people whose race was the same as the woman they were observing. White people’s sexism caused them to view Blasey Ford more harshly, but Black people’s sexism did not change the way they saw Blasey Ford; Black people’s sexism caused them to view Hill more unfavorably, but White people’s sexism didn’t affect their view of Hill nearly as much.

Lowery cowrote the paper with Vivian Xiao, a PhD candidate in organizational behavior at Stanford GSB, and Amelia Stillwell, an assistant professor of management at the University of Utah. Across five separate studies, the team found a consistent effect: People are more likely to expect women who share their racial identity to conform to gender norms — to “act like women” — and are more critical of those who do not than they are of women outside of their racial category.

“People who are in your racial in-group see you as gendered, and in some sense, you can say there’s something positive about that,” Lowery says. “Most people care whether people see them as men or women, and people in your racial in-group do that. And because of that, they expect you to behave the way they expect women to behave, and when you don’t, they sanction or punish you.”

The Price of Speaking Up

To test their hypothesis that in-group and out-group associations would be predictive of gender backlash, Lowery and his coauthors studied survey results about attitudes regarding Blasey Ford, Hill, and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, whose rise to political power set her apart from gender norms. The researchers also conducted experiments to gauge whether gender backlash was evident in other situations in which people assessed a woman of the same race.

They surveyed almost 600 people after Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which included Blasey Ford’s remarks accusing him of sexual assault. Survey participants were asked to evaluate how likable they found Blasey Ford and how truthful they believed her testimony to be. White study participants were significantly less supportive of Blasey Ford — their sexism increased — but the degree of sexism among people of color had a much weaker effect on their view of Blasey Ford.

Study participants who viewed Blasey Ford unfavorably saw her behavior as violating gender norms — “She’s not doing what people think women should do,” Lowery says. The pronounced backlash among White people suggests that they saw Blasey Ford “as a woman,” and ascribed certain expectations to her as a result. When she didn’t behave according to those norms, “People in her racial group are going to have a problem with her and be less likely to believe her.”

Lowery contends that people of color weren’t more supportive of Blasey Ford because they are less sexist than their White counterparts. Rather, they were less likely to impose their expectations of gender performance on a woman of another race. To test this insight, Lowery and his co-authors examined attitudes about Hill, a Black attorney and law professor who accused Thomas, also Black, of sexual harassment when he was a Supreme Court nominee in 1991.

The researchers analyzed opinions of Hill from more than 700 respondents in the American National Election Studies survey in 1992. They found that Black respondents’ sexism predicted harsher judgments of Hill than non-Black respondents’ sexism did. “Their sexism negatively affected how they perceived Hill,” Lowery says.

Evaluating Women Leaders

Women who run for public office are vulnerable to gender backlash, as leadership qualities have long been framed as masculine. Would the same race-influenced attitudes present in the findings about Blasey Ford and Hill also appear when the subject was presidential nominee Hillary Clinton? Using a sample of nearly 2,000 people, Lowery and his coauthors examined how voters felt about Clinton during the 2016 election. After controlling for political ideology, they found that White voters were significantly less likely to vote for Clinton as a function of sexism than Black voters.

Asian American respondents viewed tough female bosses of their own racial group — Asian women — less favorably than they did tough bosses who were of a different racial background — White women.

“To be a leader means to behave in a certain way,” Lowery says. “And the way that people expect leaders to behave is incompatible with the way they expect women to behave. In some sense, just desiring and pursuing power — that’s seen as not very feminine. So, the more sexist people are, the more of a problem they’re going to have with a woman who’s running for president. If you’re likely to see people of your racial in-group as gendered, then you’d predict that White people would have a problem with Hillary Clinton.”

While the first three experiments in the study focused on women in the public eye, the last two used imaginary women to test how people felt about adherence to gender norms. In one, White participants read about a woman in a leadership role with a stereotypically White, Black, or Asian American name who described herself as either a “tough boss” or a “caring boss.” They read about this woman reprimanding a subordinate of unspecified race and gender and reported how much they liked this leader and her leadership skills.

Controlling for the study participants’ views on social hierarchy, the researchers determined once again that the in-group or out-group status affected the level of backlash. The hypothetical White women who described themselves as tough bosses received more gender backlash from White people than did Black or Asian American women leaders. Similarly, a second study using theoretical female subjects found that Asian American respondents viewed tough female bosses of their own racial group — Asian women — less favorably than they did tough bosses who were of a different racial background — White women.

The researchers did not examine the gender expectations people have of men of the same race, but plans are in the works to do so. “If it’s true that in-groups confer gender to some women and not others, then it also should be the case that sometimes you confer masculinity with some men and not others,” Lowery says. “So, what would that look like? That’s something we’re looking at.”

When Racism and Sexism Collide

The gender norms people expect women of their racial in-group to meet have serious ramifications for society, Lowery says. Clinton, for example, lost to Donald Trump in 2016 among both White women and White men. Had she not faced a gender backlash from her racial in-group, which makes up the largest percentage of the US electorate, would things have played out differently?

“We talked about the magnitude of the impact and how that shift could have affected the election if these effects had not been there,” Lowery says. “What would have happened in the election? I think that’s just an interesting way to highlight why this matters.”

That said, Lowery does not want the study to give the impression that White women suffer gender backlash more than women of color. Instead, he wants readers to think critically about how different dimensions of hierarchy related to race and gender affect each other. In some situations, racism might worsen sexism, he says. In others, sexism might blunt the effects of racism. While White people might punish White women more for defying gender roles, they might also be more willing to reward them for adhering to gender norms.

“Racism can allow you to avoid the negative consequences of sexism, or racism can also prevent you from getting the positive consequences associated with paternalistic sexism,” Lowery says. “You just have to be more thoughtful about how these things actually affect people’s lives.”

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