Differences Make a Difference: The Intersection of Race and Gender

Dr. Carlotta Berry recently wrote in the New York Times about her experiences as a black female engineering professor and the challenge of being seen as qualified by both colleagues and students. In their new book, What Works for Women at Work, scholars Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey revisit the hypothesis put forward by Francis Beale in the 1960s, as well as by other scholars, that black women, and other women of color, experience “double jeopardy,” or are doubly disadvantaged by the intersection of race and gender. One implication of double jeopardy is that women of color have to expend more energy than white women to be respected and successful. They are flying against a headwind in their careers that is stronger than the headwind faced by white women. Williams and Dempsey acknowledge that lumping women of color together—even into three groups as black women, Latinas, and Asian American women—loses important nuances of difference within each group. Nonetheless, the differences for women of color found in their research are worth noting:

  • Women of color frequently described their interactions at work as demeaning or disrespectful, words that didn’t come up in the interviews with white women.
  • Black women are rated more harshly when something goes wrong at work than are black men or white women.
  • Black women have more leeway to behave in “masculine” ways than do white women, Latinas, or Asian American women.
  • Black women are allowed to be more assertive than white women or black men, as long as they use their assertive style in the service of the group and not for self-promotion.
  • Black women are allowed to be assertive, as long as they are not perceived as “angry black women.”
  • Latinas have to fight very hard to be seen as competent.
  • Latinas have to worry about being seen as “too passionate” or “fiery.”
  • Latinas are often seen as “too feminine” in their style of dress and as lacking executive presence.
  • Asian American women have to overcome being seen as “too feminine” and passive and, therefore, not leaders.
  • Asian Americans are seen as the “model minority”—too competent, too ambitious, too hardworking and, simultaneously, not sociable and not leadership material.
  • When Asian American women are assertive, they are seen as “dragon ladies.”
Why is it important to be aware of these differences? We need to support one another as women in the workplace, especially when challenges come up. We can be allies to each other only if we understand both the differences and commonalities in our experiences. We can all accomplish so much more, both individually and collectively, if we can count on other women having our backs. Here’s to women supporting women!]]>

Leave a Comment