Do powerful poses influence how we perceive professional women, and does race play a role in these perceptions? A recent study examines the dynamics of gender, race, and nonverbal displays of power in the workplace, finding that white women in power poses are seen as more masculine and less feminine compared to black women in the poses, potentially affecting their careers. career opportunities. These findings have been published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The motivation behind this research stems from a long history of gendered racial stereotypes that have clearly shaped societal perceptions of women based on their racial background. The researchers wanted to understand how these stereotypes influence the interpretation of non-verbal displays of power, such as body language, in the workplace. With a focus on the intersectionality of race and gender, the study sought to explore whether black and white women face different responses when they engage in behaviors traditionally associated with power and leadership.
“Display of power is especially important in the workplace. When people observe someone exhibiting powerful physical displays, we know that they often assume that person is competent and has a higher status, which could open doors for career advancement (Hall et al., 2005),” said Quang-Anh Ngo, co-authors of the study. Tran (a PhD student at Indiana University Bloomington) and Erin Cooley (an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Colgate University).
“However, the way power is perceived can also influence the way sexism is expressed. Given historical stereotypes that portray white women as fragile and delicate, and black women as strong and powerful, we reasoned that powerful poses might be viewed differently based on race. If so, subtle displays of power through posture could have lasting consequences for some women’s careers.”
The research team designed a multi-phase approach, starting with a pilot study and followed by three subsequent studies, each building on insights gained from the previous one.
In the pilot study, the researchers sought to gain a fundamental understanding of how powerful and less powerful poses are perceived in terms of masculinity and femininity, independent of race and gender. To achieve this, they presented participants with sketches of figures in high- and low-power poses, which were deliberately stripped of any racial or gender identification.
A total of 109 participants were recruited for this phase. They were asked to rate the sketches for perceived masculinity and femininity, using a scale that also included traits traditionally associated with each gender. The findings confirmed that high-power poses are generally perceived as more masculine than low-power poses.
Building on these findings, Studies 1 and 2 involved showing participants images of black and white women in both powerful and less powerful poses. These images have been carefully selected from the Chicago Face Database to ensure consistency in attractiveness and femininity across the racial groups depicted.
In Study 1, 508 participants evaluated these images within a hypothetical corporate environment, rating each for perceived masculinity and femininity. Study 2 expanded on this framework by including 512 participants and adding measures to assess the expression of ambivalent sexism (both hostile and benevolent) toward the women in the images, as well as their perceived desirability for hiring.
The researchers found that white women in powerful poses were consistently perceived as more masculine and less feminine than black women in the same poses. This different perception suggests that high-power poses, traditionally associated with masculinity and dominance, are seen as more congruent with the expected social roles of black women than with those of white women.
Furthermore, white women in positions of high power not only faced more hostile sexism, but were also considered less desirable as hires compared to black women in similar poses. This suggests that white women’s violation of traditional gender norms, as signaled by powerful poses, elicited more negative reactions in terms of sexism and professional evaluation.
The final phase, Study 3, sought to further contextualize these findings by examining the impact of job status on perceptions and sexist expressions. This study focused exclusively on high-power positions and introduced a manipulation of job status (high vs. low) to see if this would influence the outcomes. A total of 519 participants viewed the same types of images, but were told that the women were applying for a high-status job (corporate executive) or a low-status job (administrative assistant).
The results confirmed previous findings on job statuses, underscoring that the observed biases were not limited to specific types of jobs. Furthermore, the researchers tried to control for socially desirable responses, with the aim of ensuring that the expressed preferences were not merely attempts to avoid the impression of racism. Despite this control, the preference for hiring black women over white women persisted.
“Black women have different sexist experiences than white women (Crenshaw, 2017; Hooks, 1989),” Tran and Cooley told PsyPost. “Building on these insights, we found that our (predominantly white) samples’ judgments of black and white women differed based on subtle body cues related to the display of power. Specifically, white women who engaged in strong physical displays (e.g., a wide stance and their hands on their hips) were rated as more masculine than black women who engaged in the same displays.
“The increased perception of women’s masculinity was in turn accompanied by increasing expressions of hostile sexism and decreased interest in hiring those women. We concluded that white (vs. black) women may be expected to be more feminine, such that displays of power are seen as a greater violation of their gender roles; As a result, they may experience more hostile sexism when striking powerful poses.”
“It is also important to note that women of both races experienced more hostile sexism in high-power (vs. low-power) poses; this effect was only more pronounced for white women,” Tran and Cooley noted.
Looking ahead, the researchers identified three areas for future research, with the aim of unraveling the complexities of gender, race and power dynamics within professional environments.
“First, given the strong relationship between power and leadership, how can we change corporate culture in a way that leaves room for women to convey power without such backlash?” Tran and Cooley said. “For example, what strategies can organizations adopt to minimize the impact of sexism in their recruitment processes and create a more inclusive environment when hiring women? Raising awareness of such biases is important, but it is equally important to know how to combat these biases.”
“Second, are some observers more likely than others to evaluate white women who convey power negatively? Our samples consisted primarily of white people; thus, it is possible that white observers are most likely to negatively evaluate white women who engage in powerful physical displays—perhaps as a way to maintain the gender status quo within their race.”
“Finally, do these findings extend to marginalized groups other than black and white women?” the researchers continued. “Asian women in the US, for example, are often seen as hyper-feminine. Would they be judged as violating their gender roles to a particularly extreme degree, and thus experience more extreme hostile sexism (compared to what white or black women might experience)? when they engage in powerful displays?
This study sheds light on the subtle but important ways in which nonverbal communication can reinforce or challenge stereotypes at the intersection of race and gender. By highlighting how stereotypes and biases can influence the evaluation of professional women, the study not only sheds light on the challenges Black and White women face in the business world, but also calls for a more nuanced understanding and approach to tackle these problems.
“Today, women are still underrepresented in many industries within the workforce,” Tran and Cooley said. “Our work highlights how gendered racial stereotypes can influence professional evaluations of white and black women, and contribute to a deeper understanding of the challenges women face in their ascendant status. We hope the insights we’ve provided are useful in thinking about how we can change corporate culture to support women to rise to powerful positions without setbacks.”
The study, “Racialized Sexism: Non-verbal Displays of Power in Workplace settings are Evaluated as more Masculinine When Displayed by White (vs. Black) Women With Implications for the Expression of Ambivalent Sexism,” was authored by Quang-Anh Ngo Tran and Erin Cooley. , Jaclyn A. Lisnek, Jazmin L. Brown-Iannuzzi, and William Cipolli.