Working for Justice

Women and Minority Executives are Penalized for Valuing Diversity

A new study from the University of Colorado-Boulder found that women and minority corporate executives who hired and promoted other women and minorities received lower performance ratings than their white male colleagues. This penalization perpetuates the glass ceiling that women and minorities struggle to shatter.

The study provides one explanation for the observation that women and minority executives are reluctant to hire and promote from within their demographic groups. The study upends some conventional thinking about women and minority executives. For example, at the highest ranks in large organizations, successful women are often viewed as “queen bees,” who see other women and minorities as competitive threats. But in reality, women and minorities who don’t help members of their own groups may be acting out of self-preservation. “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,” so emphasizing femaleness or ethnic difference can set performance bars higher than they otherwise would be. Emphasizing skill and ability while downplaying gender and race increases the chance that these women and minorities will be promoted by normalizing the performance standards. So while some of these executives may want to seek the advancement of other women and minorities, they could face adverse consequences if they do.

Aside from trying to ensure that women and minorities aren’t penalized from promoting other women and minorities, it seems like the most straightforward way to break through, and increase diversity in the corporate ranks,  is to engage the current predominantly white male corporate leadership. The study’s authors suggest two possible options:

  1. White male managers could be recruited to play a larger role in running diversity initiatives. This approach is risky though, because it relies on the same people who have constructed an oppressive, exclusive regime to break it down and take an active role in fostering a diverse workplace. There has been some success–UPS’s white male CEO leads the company’s diversity council–but it remains to be seen whether this is a broadly realistic option. While UPS has made diversity an important part of its global strategy, in other organizations diversity may be seen as something that concerns women or minorities so white men may be discouraged from actively promoting it. White men may see diversity as a threat to the status quo and a threat to their positions of power. Until there is a broader cultural shift in favor of actively seeking diversity, recruiting white men to run diversity initiatives will be challenging.
  2. We could reward executives who hire and promote people outside their demographic groups. This option is really a “volume game”–because there are so many white male executives in place now, if they are rewarded for promoting women and minorities, the number of women and minorities rising up the corporate ladder will have to increase. This approach would likely work simply because white men are so entrenched in corporate leadership. Giving them incentives to promote women and minorities is a relatively simple way to foster corporate diversity.

All of this suggests that women and minorities are in the unfortunate position of having to rely on white men for professional advancement, because women who help women are being penalized. As Amanda Hess said over at Slate, “the glass ceiling is not really a barrier that can be broken by the hard work of determined individual women and people of color. It’s a limit imposed from above.” Hopefully when this study is presented at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management early next month, executives will be prompted to think harder about how meaningful diversity can be achieved. With concrete data showing that diversity is unlikely to come from women and minorities alone, current executives will have to face the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of their ranks head on. As discrimination litigation reminds us, those companies that fail to take these obligations seriously may find themselves being held accountable in public litigation.

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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