For women and minorities, advocating for diversity has a downside


A new research study examines the tie between women and minorities who value diversity and how their performance is viewed by their peers. (istock photo)

In corporate America, diversity is about as controversial as motherhood and apple pie. CEOs love to tout the number of women in their upper ranks. Human resource departments like to trumpet their diversity programs in glossy reports.

But a new study finds that for female and minority executives, being seen as an advocate for diversity could actually have a downside. The researchers behind the study, which will be presented at the Academy of Management's annual conference in early August, found that women and minorities who were rated by their peers as being good at managing diverse groups or respecting gender or racial differences also tended to get lower performance ratings. That's because they may be viewed as "selfishly advancing the social standing of their own low-status demographic groups," the researchers write, a no-no when it comes to rating good managers.

"People in the upper ranks of management will not openly utter a bad word against diversity," University of Colorado professor David Hekman said in a press release. "Yet, executives who are women or ethnic minorities are penalized every day for doing what everyone says they ought to be doing -- helping other members of their groups fulfill their management potential."

Hekman, who co-authored the paper with two other researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, studied evaluations of 362 top managers who went through an executive development program over a single year. Two weeks before the program took place, each executive was rated by a handful of their bosses and peers through an online survey. It asked about their overall performance, how much they value diversity, how ethical and trustworthy they were (the researchers called this measure "warmth"), and how ambitious and productive they were (called "competence").

They found that while women and minorities got high marks on how much they valued diversity, they appeared to be penalized for it. Women who scored well on how they valued diversity tended to fare worse on the "warmth" questions, which was associated with lower overall performance ratings. Likewise, nonwhite managers seen as advocates for diversity tended to fare worse on the "competence" questions, which was also associated with worse performance scores.

The authors concede that a low sample size is a limitation for the study, and that other factors (communication styles, objective performance problems) could have driven the lower ratings. As a result, they set up a second lab experiment in which four actors -- a white man and woman and a nonwhite man and woman -- made presentations to 395 university students about four equally qualified job candidates with a similar demographic mix. In the students' answers to a survey, the women and minorities  were penalized when they spoke about the importance of diversity in their presentations.

Read also:

Barclays joins the bet on women-led firms

Google admits it has a diversity problem

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · July 22