Many women have experienced this—you behave in a manner similar to that of your male peers and yet you're deemed "too pushy," "too bossy," or "too aggressive," and seen more negatively than the men as a result.

Dubbed "gender backlash," this is one of the most prominent and well-documented barriers to women's career advancement. Gender backlash occurs when women behave in a way that is seen as "too masculine" by others and therefore in violation of traditional gender norms—standards of how women "should" behave. This often produces both social and economic penalties, including poorer interpersonal evaluations, lower salaries, and lower likelihood of being hired or promoted.

Gender and the Diversifying Workforce

As the American workforce has grown more racially diverse, scholars and practitioners alike have begun to point out that it is possible—indeed likely—that the barriers women face are not the same across different racial groups. Different racial groups are marked by different stereotypes, histories, and cultures, setting the stage for different experiences for women of different races. Sure enough, research has supported this assertion. Women of different races are indeed stereotyped differently, and these different stereotypes produce different expectations of women depending on their race, which in turn produce different experiences of gender backlash. Most of this research, however, has taken an approach to examining race and gender backlash that focuses solely on the target woman. Namely, it asks: how does a particular woman's race impact how she is seen and evaluated by others?

My collaborators and I took a different, novel approach—we examined gender backlash as an interaction between the target woman and the evaluator. Our contention is that gender backlash is both about the expectations and assumptions the evaluator brings into the interaction and the race and behavior of the woman being evaluated. Gender backlash exists in the medium of the interaction, which, we argue, necessitates a recognition of the roles that both parties play.

Gender Backlash is a Two-Way Street

Different people won't necessarily treat the same person the same way. Especially when it comes to gender norms, the way you treat others is highly dependent on your own beliefs. After all, whether you see a particular behavior as gender-norm violating depends on what you think the norm is. For example, if you have a more open stance on what gender norms should be, you may be more accepting of traditionally "masculine" behavior from women, such as being assertive and independent, than someone who has a more rigid stance on gender norms, who might be more bothered by such behavior.

My collaborators and I identified a previously unstudied factor in shaping the beliefs that are a crucial part of the equation of gender norms, race, and gender backlash—the evaluator's race. Humans are incredibly tribal beings. We are all innately sensitive to what divides "us" from "them" and one of the most deeply ingrained divisions in the U.S. context is race. People not only have a greater affinity for and interact far more with people who are the same race as them, but people also see same-race others as more relevant sources of information and identity. As a result, people tend to enforce norms most strongly within social groups like race. It simply matters much more what's happening with "us" than "them," especially, people commonly think, when it comes to gender norms.

What Does This Mean for Race and Gender Backlash?

We examined our question across a number of different contexts, both in the real world—examining evaluations of public figures such as Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford and Anita Hill, both of whom accused Supreme Court nominees of sexual misconduct, and Hillary Clinton during her run for the Presidency—and in the laboratory using controlled experiments. We found that when we take the evaluator's race into account, the patterns of gender backlash are far different from those previously documented. The race of the target woman certainly mattered in how she was evaluated, but so too did the race of the evaluator—and in a way that may seem surprising.

Even though you might imagine that people would be inclined to support women of their own race more, as people often have biases in favor of their own group, we in fact found the opposite. People were often far harsher towards women of their own race than women of some other race when these women were seen as "not feminine enough." White evaluators were less generous in their evaluations of White women like Dr. Ford and Clinton than people of color, particularly among those who were relatively sexist. Likewise, Black evaluators were less generous in their evaluations of Black women like Hill than non-Black evaluators. And so on.

These negative evaluations also had real-world impact. For example, we were able to determine that in the 2016 Presidential election, greater sexism significantly predicted a lower likelihood of voting for Clinton among White voters only, even after accounting for political beliefs. So, not only are these women seen more negatively by those of their racial group for not acting "feminine enough," but this negativity also can translate into significant career setbacks.

Our findings suggest that in order to fully capture all that goes into producing gender backlash, we must account for factors relating to the evaluator in addition to those relating to the woman being evaluated. This may seem complex, but a way of simplifying the picture is this: when it comes to gender norms, people are primarily concerned with "us," rather than "them." Although you may still recognize when women of a different race than you are behaving in ways that might be considered "unfeminine," this recognition only translates to negativity and withheld support when this woman is "relevant" to you. And who is seen as "relevant" are often those of your own racial group.

For Further Reading

Xiao, V. L., Lowery, B. S., & Stillwell, A. (2023). Gender backlash and the moderating role of shared racial group membership. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 49(4), 544-570.

Vivian L. Xiao is a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management. She studies how race and gender intersect and interact to influence leader selection, evaluation, and performance.