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Women and minority corporate executives are penalized for fostering diversity, study finds

July 14, 2014

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, +1-718-398-7642 or +1-917-903-9287, press@aom.org

At a time when women and ethnic minorities outnumber white males by two to one in the U.S. workplace but remain decidedly underrepresented in executive ranks, a great puzzle is the growing body of evidence that nonwhite and female managers are reluctant to hire and promote members of their own groups. The phenomenon has lent credence to such terms as "tokens," "queen bees," and "cat fights" that suggest an underlying fear and dislike among these executives of their own kind.

Now some new research uncovers a motive considerably more sympathetic than what those terms convey. A paper to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, (Philadelphia Aug. 1-5)  finds that, contrary to the notion that women and ethnic-minority executives fear fellow group members as competitive threats, they are more inclined than white males to seek their advancement. The problem is, their bosses are likely to hold that against them. 

This contributes at least in part, the paper's authors believe, to what is known as the "glass ceiling."

"Ethnic minority or female leaders who engage in diversity-valuing behavior are penalized with worse performance ratings than their equally diversity-valuing white or male counterparts," concludes the report by David R. Hekman of the University of Colorado and Maw Der Foo and Wei Yang of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

"Nonwhite and women leaders who engage in diversity-increasing behaviors in the highest organizational ranks are systematically penalized with lower performance ratings for doing so," the study continues. "Our findings suggest that nonwhite and women leaders may increase their own chances of advancing up the corporate ladder by actually engaging in a very low level of diversity-valuing behavior... By downplaying their race and gender, these leaders may be viewed...as worthy of being promoted into the highest organizational echelons."

Adds Prof. Hekman: "More people believe in ghosts than believe in racism, and people in the upper ranks of management will not openly utter a bad word against diversity. Yet, executives who are women or ethnic minorities are penalized every day for doing what everyone says they ought to be doing -- helping other members of their groups fulfill their management potential. It is a revealing sign that the supposed death of longstanding biases has been greatly exaggerated."

The professor notes that, while the great majority of the hundreds of managers' bosses in the study were white males, results did not vary when the bosses were women or ethnic minorities (although the relatively small numbers sampled may have made it hard to obtain differences that were statistically significant). He sees the state of affairs revealed by the research as comparable to a chronic inflection -- latent much of the time but subject to pernicious flare-ups.

Bias does its damage, the paper finds, through stereotypes regarding two personal traits that are widely viewed as essential social behaviors -- warmth and competence, both of which strongly influence how managers are rated in terms of overall performance. "Women tend to be held to higher standards of warmth than men, and ethnic minorities tend to be held to higher standards of competence than whites," the authors observe. "Minority and women leaders' engagement in diversity-valuing behavior may be viewed as selfishly advancing the social standing of their own low-status demographic groups." 

As a result, women so engaged "will tend to be viewed as less warm and receive lower performance ratings than their equally diversity-valuing male leader counterparts." Indeed, they "will be viewed by their bosses as cold and scheming to subvert the existing social order."

Meanwhile, ethnic minorities commonly "tend to be stereotyped as incompetent," a notion conveniently handy for bosses who perceive as self-serving the efforts of nonwhite managers on behalf of members of their own ethnic groups.

These findings emerge from an analysis of a trove of background data collected at a major center for leadership training in connection with 362 executives who registered for a course there. The managers were about 14% nonwhite and 31% female; earned an average of $174,000 a year, and worked for organizations with a mean of about 4,700 employees, where they typically occupied positions high in the corporate hierarchy. Included in the data were assessments by an average of three to four peers regarding the executives' commitment to diversity and ratings by their bosses with respect to warmth, competence, and overall performance.

Women and nonwhites alike were rated by their peers as significantly more valuing of diversity than white males were, but their efforts only earned them disfavor from their bosses. Thus, for the entire sample of 362 executives, the majority of whom were white males, valuing diversity gave a significant boost to ratings for warmth and performance; in contrast, for women execs specifically, it was negatively related to ratings for both variables, and for ethnic minorities it turned bosses' thumbs down on competence.

In the words of the paper, "diversity-valuing behavior was negatively related only to evaluations of leaders who were nonwhite or female -- leaders who are thought to have the greatest potential to dismantle the glass ceiling. This finding suggests that minorities and women might be able to advance their own careers by acting as tokens and engaging in a low level of diversity-valuing behavior."

Notwithstanding the unfavorable picture of the managers' bosses that emerges from this analysis, the findings do raise this nagging question: suppose the low ratings received by the nonwhite and female diversity-valuing managers reflect bosses' doubts about these leaders' objectivity in hiring and promoting individuals of their own gender or race. What if legitimate concern about personnel judgments, and not simply bias, is the explanation?

To probe this question and other uncertainties, the authors undertook a behavioral experiment that enabled them to control key factors, such as the quality of job candidates, in a way that cannot be done in a field study.

Three hundred ninety-five university students were divided into four groups, each of which viewed a presentation in which a supposed HR manager (actually an actor or actress) presented photos and information about four candidates for a position as project manager and advocated for one. The four candidates, as well as the four supposed HR managers, were a white male, a while female, a nonwhite male, and a nonwhite female. The white male HR manager advocated for each of the four candidates, each to a different audience. The white female manager advocated for either the white male or white female candidate. The nonwhite male manager advocated for the white male or nonwhite male applicant. The nonwhite female manager advocated for either the white male or nonwhite female candidate.

Those advocating for female or minority candidates, following a set script, conceded that all four applicants were equally qualified but urged the importance of diversity to the organization and of doing "the right thing" to advance it. Those advocating for the white male candidate indicated that while all four applicants were impressive, this one "looks like a leader and looks like somebody whom the team will respect...I'm convinced he is the best person for the job."

How did the audiences respond to the presentations? Like the bosses in the field study, they penalized (in their answers to a survey) the minority and female presenters, but not the males, for seeking to foster diversity. Prof Hekman says that the white actresses in particular were startled by the intensity of audience reactions when they advocated for the white female candidate. "The actresses said they could see the women glaring at them," he recalls.

What can be done about a problem this enduring? The authors wonder whether, given the lack of disapproval -- and even approbation -- that white males experience in fostering managerial heterogeneity, they might be recruited to play a larger role than they now do in diversity offices, which today are typically run by women and minorities. While conceding the approach to be counterintuitive, they cite the success of the United Parcel Service, where the white male CEO serves as the leader of the company's diversity council.

Another approach, they write, "would be to simply measure and reward the degree to which people hire and promote individuals who are demographically dissimilar from themselves. Because white men currently hold a clear numerical majority at the highest organizational levels, rewarding such demographic unselfishness would naturally correct the demographic imbalances throughout organizations as members of demographic majorities would tend to hire and promote members of demographic minorities."

The paper, entitled "Does valuing diversity result in worse performance ratings for minority and female leaders?" will be as among some 4,000 research reports to be presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting, in Philadelphia from August 1st to 5th. Founded in 1936, the Academy of Management is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has about 19,400 members in 118 countries. This year's annual meeting will draw some 10,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, organizational behavior, corporate governance, careers, human resources, technology development, and other management-related topics.

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