Women and minorities who advocate for diversity in the workplace often receive lower performance reviews, while their white male counterparts are rewarded for the same behavior, according to new University of Colorado research.
A female business executive who advocates for hiring and promoting women is perceived to be less warm, and a nonwhite executive who pushes for diversity is viewed as less competent, the researchers found.
Both are viewed as selfish and trying to help their own groups get a leg up, according to the research.
Yet white men who value diversity get a significant boost in their performance reviews.
The findings provide one reason why women and nonwhites are still underrepresented in corporate leadership positions, said lead author David Hekman, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Leeds School of Business.
"Women and minorities are paid less, and 85 percent at the top are white men, why is that?" Hekman said. "Women tend to outperform men in many studies. This paper provides one explanation, that women who promote women are penalized and when nonwhites promote nonwhites they're penalized."
Hekman's team conducted two studies to determine what effect valuing diversity has on executives' performance ratings.
The first study was an analysis of data collected from 362 business executives taking a class at a major center for leadership training.
The data included assessments of the executives' commitment to diversity and ratings by their supervisors.
"Simply put, women leaders who engage in diversity-valuing behavior will be viewed as selfishly promoting women, which will lead their bosses to stereotype them as cold and this judgment will result in lower performance ratings," the authors wrote in a paper to be presented next month at the Academy of Management conference.
Hekman co-authored the paper with Maw Der Foo, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship, and Wei Yang, a CU graduate student.
The researchers found the same to be true for nonwhites, who were perceived as selfish and incompetent when they received high ratings for their commitment to diversity.
They conducted a second study using actors and actresses to portray human resources managers advocating for various job candidates.
When the HR managers were females or nonwhites, audience members penalized them for trying to foster diversity. White male HR managers, however, did not receive lower ratings when they talked about the importance of diversity.
Hekman guessed that females and nonwhites who promote diversity somehow threaten white male executives, even though they hold the majority of powerful positions and consistently earn more money.
Women are held to higher standards for warmness than men, just as minorities are held to higher standards for competence than white employees, Hekman said. A negative rating in either warmth or competence leads to a negative overall performance rating, he added.
"If anybody drops on warmth or competence, they're viewed as a worse person we don't want to be around, a bad performer," he said. "So for women, these stereotypes are all about warmth. When they engage in these threatening behaviors, these selfish behaviors, they are viewed as less warm. She's a bitch, basically."
Making people aware of these biases is not enough, Hekman said. His team suggested using a neutral term like "demographic unselfishness behavior" rather than diversity.
"What if you just measure how much are you unselfish about your group, how much are you willing to consider somebody from a different group," Hekman said. "Why do we call it diversity? It's a loaded term."
Though it seems counterintuitive, the researchers also suggested hiring a white male to lead diversity offices, which are typically run by women and nonwhites.
Doing so will lead to more favorable reviews of the white male executive for promoting diversity, and it also may signal to employees that the company truly values hiring people of all kinds.
"It's a way of not ghettoizing diversity," he said. "White men get a bump from valuing it. The white man in charge can't get attacked for being selfish."