Does Diversity-Valuing Behavior Result in Diminished Performance Ratings for Nonwhite and Female Leaders?
Promoting diversity lowers performance evaluations for leaders who are women and/or people of color, but not for leaders who are white men.
Women comprise nearly half the workforce in the United States, yet men dominate high-status positions, leading over 475 of the Fortune 500 and holding the large majority of corporate board seats. Top leaders are also disproportionately white, leaving an especially wide status and power gap between women of color and white men.
When women and people of color do make it to the top, they are not necessarily creating a path for others to follow. In fact, leaders from underrepresented groups sometimes oppose others’ advancement, perhaps because of the risk of negative perceptions. Leaders may engage in diversity-valuing behavior, which is behavior that promotes gender and racial balance in the organization, such as hiring other women and people of color. Such behavior may be perceived by others as threatening or nepotistic, and may also highlight leaders’ gender and racial differences, activating negative stereotypes of perceived incompetence and negatively impacting their careers.
In two studies, the authors investigate whether leaders who are women and people of color are penalized for exhibiting diversity-valuing behavior. Using evaluations of executives and top managers, they examined the relationship between leaders’ gender and race, diversity-valuing behavior, perceived competence, and performance ratings. In a laboratory experiment, they specifically tested the impact of a diversity-valuing hiring decision on perceptions of top managers’ performance and competence.
When leaders supported diversity in the workplace, their bosses and peers perceived them as less competent compared to leaders who did not actively support diversity—but only if they were women and/or people of color.
- Among executives and top managers assessed by their bosses and peers, high diversity-valuing behavior was linked to less favorable evaluations for women and people of color, but better evaluations for white men.
- Women with high diversity-valuing behavior received significantly lower performance ratings (a difference of -0.40 on a 5-point scale) and were perceived as significantly less competent (a difference of -0.29 on a 6-point scale) than women with low diversity-valuing behavior.
- Men with high diversity-valuing behavior received significantly higher performance ratings (+0.21) than men with low diversity-valuing behavior but were perceived as similarly competent
- Leaders of color with high diversity-valuing behavior received significantly lower performance ratings (-0.59) and were perceived as significantly less competent (-0.43) than leaders of color with low diversity-valuing behavior
- White leaders with high diversity-valuing behavior received significantly higher performance ratings (+0.21) than white leaders with low diversity-valuing behavior, and were perceived as similarly competent.
- In a laboratory scenario about a top manager’s decision to hire either a woman/minority or a white man, choosing the woman/minority candidate on the basis of improved leadership diversity as well as a superior test score led to less favorable evaluations than choosing the white male candidate on the basis of a superior test score alone—but only for women/minority managers.
- Women who selected the woman/minority candidate received significantly lower performance ratings than women who selected the white man (3.65 vs. 3.96 on a 5-point scale), and were perceived as significantly less competent (3.86 vs 4.17 on a 5-point scale).
- Men received similar performance ratings (3.76 and 3.75) and were perceived as similarly competent (3.94 and 3.93), whether they selected the woman/minority candidate or the white man.
- Managers of color who selected the woman/minority candidate received significantly lower performance ratings (3.61 vs 4.10) than managers of color who selected the white man, and were perceived as significantly less competent (3.80 vs 4.23).
- White managers received similar performance ratings (3.77 and 3.73) and were perceived as similarly competent (3.99 and 3.93), whether they selected the woman/minority candidate or the white man.
- In both experiments, perceived competence ratings for leaders explained the performance ratings they received—suggesting that diversity-valuing behavior may activate unconscious stereotypes of women and people of color as incompetent.
In short, these findings show that diversity-valuing behavior can negatively impact women and minorities’ careers. Workplaces may better achieve demographic balance by encouraging managers to advance workers who are demographically different from themselves, and by engaging white men as leaders in diversity initiatives, to maximize buy-in from others without the risk of penalties
The field study recruited 350 executives and top managers (31% women, 10% people of color, 2% women of color) representing over 20 industries and job functions, from a week-long executive development program. Before the program, each leader was rated on diversity-valuing behavior (3 items, 5-point scale), performance (3 items, 5-point scale), and competence (4 items, 6-point scale) by a single boss and an average of 3 to 4 peers. The study controlled for demographic factors including industry, organization size, native language, and familiarity and similarity between the leader and raters.
The laboratory experiment recruited 307 employed adults (41% women, 31% people of color) to evaluate a hiring decision for a senior vice president role. In a written scenario, a team of four managers were divided between two candidates: a white man, and a woman and/or minority (Asian-American woman, Asian-American man, African-American woman, African-American man, or white woman), indicated by photographs. The senior hiring manager made a final decision, either choosing the white man and citing his superior test score, or choosing the woman/minority and citing both the candidate’s superior test score and an improved gender and racial balance for the leadership team. The senior hiring manager was matched by gender and race to either the white man or the woman/minority, again indicated by a photograph. After reading the scenario, participants rated the senior hiring manager’s diversity-valuing behavior and performance (same as field study), and competence (6 items, 5-point scale).