Catherine Cassidy, principal of Southside High School in Youngsville, LA. US Department of Agriculture.

Being The Boss

Managing our own feelings and those of others—which scholars call “emotional labor”—on the job and off, it’s something we all have to do. Research has shown that, in workplaces, expectations about women taking on emotional labor has interfered with some women’s ability to cultivate professional authority and power. But these past studies have largely been based on the experiences of White women. How do race and gender intersect when it comes to understanding navigating professional leadership and emotion work?

In Gender & Society, Simone Ispa-Landa and Sara Thomas explore this question with a study of a racially diverse group of cisgender women who had recently become school principals. Through in-depth interviews across multiple years, it became clear that the women’s approaches and experiences differed sharply by race. It was a priority for the White women principals to be viewed as emotionally supportive and open to the influence of others. They saw acts of authority and expressions of care as being in conflict: two opposing imperatives necessitating careful balance. Over time, they gradually moved to a more “directive approach,” putting less emphasis on emotional nurturance in their leadership roles.

In contrast, the researchers found that the Black, Latina, and multiracial women principals took a directive leadership approach from the start. They did not perceive exercising authority and showing concern for others’ emotions as being in conflict. Rather, they saw these as a “blended project” that fit together in their leadership approaches—approaches that stayed consistent across the study years.

Understanding how leadership experiences and strategies differ across race and gender is critical for both researchers and practitioners. As this study underscores, there is simply no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to how women navigate power, authority, and emotional work.