Ambition Has Always Been ‘Ladylike’

“It’s textbook in a lot of ways,” Professor Grant said. “If you are a Black woman, and you show up in a space with new ideas, asking people to be different than they have before, then you are subject to this criticism about not knowing your place, being too ambitious, wanting too much.”

There has long been a refrain among those who study women’s leadership that women who seek power must do it nicely. Research has advised women to temper their ambitions with warmth — because women are expected to be “warm” — and to self-promote, but carefully, because people tend not to like immodest women.

There is an entire self-help industry devised to teach this kind of female leadership, with tips and tools and tactics for how to rise in a largely white and male-dominated corporate world — where to be successful, a woman must be liked, but to be liked, she must not be too successful, her likability eroded by her professional status. “It’s a classic double bind,” said the sociologist Marianne Cooper, a researcher at Stanford who studies gender and leadership.

Joan C. Williams, who runs the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and is an author of “What Works for Women at Work,” has called this “gender judo”: The idea that women can offset those stereotypically “masculine” behaviors, like ambition, with stereotypically “feminine” behaviors, like warmth or friendliness.

In other words, negotiate, but do it with a smile. (Research from the Carnegie Mellon professor Linda Babcock has found that in a negotiation, smiling can help offset the tendency for a woman to be labeled aggressive.) Win the debate, but apologize for it later. And definitely, definitely don’t laugh.

And yet those temperament modifications have never been available in the same way to Black women — who must navigate what Francis M. Beal, the co-founder of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of S.N.C.C., labeled “double jeopardy” long ago.

Black women may in fact be more ambitious than white women in the corporate world — as shown in a number of recent studies — but they still face unequal challenges once there, including having their mistakes disproportionately punished.