Valuing diversity is apparently frowned upon in Corporate America -- unless you’re a white man.
Women and minorities who promote diversity from corporate leadership positions tend to get lower evaluations from their bosses and colleagues, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado and University of Texas.
The study was based on two experiments. In the first, researchers studied the performance evaluations of 362 high-level executives. The evaluations were given by bosses and peers to execs in a leadership-training program. Women and minorities who got high marks for valuing diversity -- like understanding different cultural backgrounds and managing workers with different backgrounds effectively -- got lower scores in their reviews than women and minority colleagues who didn’t appear to value diversity as much.
White men didn’t appear to suffer in their performance ratings for valuing diversity.
But that experiment didn't prove that valuing diversity hurt performance scores. So the team did another experiment. In this one, 395 students watched trained actors playing human-resources professionals pitching to hire certain candidates. Some pushed for the non-white-male candidates and emphasized diversity in their pitch. Others advocated for the white male candidates.
The students watching the presentations reacted negatively when women and minority actors pushed for diverse candidates. Women in the audience winced when they saw women pushing for another woman to get the job for the sake of diversity, according to David Hekman, the lead author of the study and a management professor at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business.
“They were like, ‘This is terrible, you’re hurting all of us, it makes us all look like we’re incompetent and weak, like we can’t do this ourselves,’” Hekman said.
Students reacted pretty positively to pitches for hiring white men, Hekman said -- particularly when women and non-white actors were the ones doing the pitching.
Such reactions may arise from negative stereotypes about women and minorities, the researchers suggested. Women and minorities promoting each other fits into the misguided idea that they are more likely to indulge in selfish favoritism than promote deserving candidates.
Hekman pointed to the divergent fortunes of Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and recently-axed New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson as a possible example of how his findings play out in the real world.
Mayer has publicly distanced herself from feminism. Like most tech giants, Yahoo is somewhat lacking when it comes to diversity: Just 23 percent of its senior managers are women, and women make up 37 percent of its total work force. Black and Hispanic employees account for just 6 percent of Yahoo’s work force.
Abramson, on the other hand, has repeatedly called filling half of the Times' leadership roles with women one of her greatest accomplishments.
“Marissa Mayer is worth $300 million bucks, and Jill Abramson is fired,” Hekman said.
That may be oversimplifying things: The Times, after all, replaced Abramson with a black man, Dean Baquet. But the study suggests that women and minorities who reach the top gain more personally from being a token than from helping others get ahead.
Boosting diversity in the upper corporate ranks could require essentially reframing the issue, according to Hekman. Instead of emphasizing diversity, he suggests companies push leaders to be “demographically unselfish" -- in other words, aim to hire and promote people that are unlike themselves.
“'Diversity' is a loaded term,” Hekman said. “It’s used as a euphemism for 'You like to promote non-whites and women.'”
Hekman and his team also propose putting white men in charge of promoting diversity at companies. Many companies have established "chief diversity officer" roles, but keep filling those jobs with women and minorities, which only reinforces the negative stereotypes about them. Sixty percent of companies in the Fortune 500 have CDOs, and 65 percent of the people holding those jobs are women, and 37 percent are African-American, according to a 2012 Wall Street Journal report.
“Almost all of diversity offices are run by non-whites and women, but I think that further ghettoizes diversity itself and makes it so it’s not taken seriously,” Hekman said. “Nobody can attack a white man for being selfish if he’s promoting diversity.”