By Alex Fradera
As the first cohort of women leaders began pushing up against the glass ceiling, many hoped it would shatter… but it only cracked. Today fewer than 10 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are led by people from ethnic minority groups and women combined, and although the reasons are manifold, blame has been laid at the feet of the early pioneers themselves.
The accusation is that successful people from underrepresented groups act as gatekeepers, keeping out others to maintain their special status and to identify with the dominant majority (the most famous example being the Queen Bee syndrome where a female boss undermines other women). But new research from the Academy of Management Journal suggests a different and very understandable reason that minority members are cautious to show enthusiasm for increasing diversity – because they know it could spell disaster for their own career if they did.
The international team headed by David Hekman of the University of Colorado recruited 350 American executives from a range of organisations: one in ten of them were non-White and about 30 per cent were women. The executives’ bosses and roughly three of their peers rated them in terms of their competence and performance, including readiness to be promoted, and their diversity-valuing behaviour, an example being “values working with a diverse group of people”.
This last measure of “promoting diversity” is considered important in most major organisations, as it can provide better coverage of customer needs and can facilitate different ways of thinking. Overall, the findings from the current study were consistent with this: participants who were rated higher for diversity-valuing behaviour were also rated higher for performance and competence.
But there was an important exception. For female and non-White executives, the more they valued diversity, the worse they were rated for performance and competence. And the non-White leaders who received very high performance ratings (higher even than the White majority) showed the least interest in diversity.
The authors argue that this points to an attitudinal bias, whereby most senior staff generally see diversity-promoting behaviour as benign or even worthwhile… except when it comes from minorities, in which case, it triggers concerns of nepotism or of opposition to the interests of the majority and a desire to undermine the status quo. In turn, these concerns may reinforce the minority status of the individual, making stereotypic negative judgments more salient.
To test this explanation, Hekman’s team conducted an experiment: 300 participants recruited from an online database were asked to review a hiring manager’s decision to take on a new Vice President for their organisation, and rate that manager’s competence accordingly. Participants saw photos of the new VP and the hiring manager and they read a transcript of the conversation about the hire.
When a female or non-White hiring manager took on a female or minority VP and mentioned improving diversity as a motive, the participants gave them poor ratings, a cost that was not incurred by White male hiring managers making the same decision. This seems to back up the researchers’ theory that minority managers are perceived negatively when they actively promote diversity.
Clearly, there are selfish incentives for successful members of minority groups to identify with the higher-status in-group, to be included and welcomed and feel like a member of the elite in good standing. This research suggests that there may also be valid reasons for minority leaders to fear making a show of helping other minority individuals.
Hekman’s team discuss a few possible ways to tackle this, and suggest an intriguing approach: to reward any organisational member that hires someone demographically different from them. This rule would apply to everyone, with a sound logic – what might you learn from a second-in-command with a different background to you? – and in practice, its application would increase minority numbers by virtue of the sheer numbers of majority group members seeking out someone different. Whatever the exact approach, one takeaway from this is that it is going to be harder for minorities to promote diversity in organisations, because their motives are going to be taken as suspect. So White men who care about diversity should step up and make the case for it. They are relatively insulated, whereas for others, the case may be simply too costly to make.