A new study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that when women and minorities were perceived as speaking up about or promoting diversity, they were penalized by their peers for doing so while their white, male counterparts were not.
Professors Stefanie K. Johnson and David R. Hekman from the University of Colorado surveyed 350 working executives, asking about the culture of their workplaces that actively promoted demographic balance at the office. Specifically, participants were asked about how cultural, racial, and gender differences were respected and how much diversity was considered a valuable part of their day to day work.
Given the importance that many organizations now place on corporate diversity, Johnson and Hekman expected their survey participants to report that managerial emphasis on inclusion was seen as a good thing. That wasn’t the case.
“Much to our surprise, we found that engaging in diversity-valuing behaviors did not benefit any of the executives in terms of how their bosses rated their competence or performance,” Johnson and Hekman described in the Harvard Business Review. “Even more striking, we found that women and nonwhite executives who were reported as frequently engaging in these behaviors were rated much worse by their bosses, in terms of competence and performance ratings, than their female and nonwhite counterparts who did not actively promote balance.”
Perplexed, the researchers took their findings and tested them against people’s real-world reactions to the idea of female and minority managers making an effort to hire other women and minorities. A group of over 300 people were given fictional hiring decisions for fake jobs that came along with pictures of the hiring manager and the new hire. This second study yielded similar results to the first.
“Participants rated nonwhite managers and female managers as less effective when they hired a nonwhite or female job candidate instead of a white male candidate,” Johnson and Hekman explain. “Basically, all managers were judged harshly if they hired someone who looked like them, unless they were a white male.”
Troubling as the study’s findings were, they’re not exactly surprising. It’s well documented that people across all demographics are prone to hiring people like themselves when given the opportunity and the bulk of people in executive positions tend to be white men. Those two facts make it seem as if the disproportionate hiring of white men seems both normal and appropriate.
Being a woman or minority with the ability to hire someone puts a person in a uniquely difficult position of having to make the right decision as well as fight against the perception of nepotism.
“As organizations seek to reflect the broader societies in which they operate, increasing racial and gender balance is becoming more urgent,” Johnson and Hekman argue. “The challenge of creating equality should not be placed on the shoulders of individuals who are at greater risk of being crushed by the weight of this goal.”