Women and people of color who promote workplace diversity and inclusion are judged more harshly by their bosses than their white male peers who engage in the same behavior, according to new research.
Women and nonwhites who frequently promote gender and race balance also are rated worse than their female and nonwhite colleagues who do not actively promote diversity, according to Stefanie K. Johnson and David R. Hekman of the University of Colorado, authors of the study recently presented in Harvard Business Review.
"For all the talk about how important diversity is within organizations, white and male executives aren’t rewarded, career-wise, for engaging in diversity-valuing behavior, and nonwhite and female executives actually get punished for it,” they said.
The researchers surveyed 350 executives on behaviors such as whether they respected cultural, religious, gender and racial differences; valued working with a diverse group of people; and felt comfortable managing people from different racial or cultural backgrounds. Through 360 survey feedback, they found women and nonwhites who frequently engage in these behaviors are rated much worse by their bosses than male and white peers who promoted diversity.
In a second study, the researchers asked 307 working adults to review a hiring decision made by a fictitious manager. The participants rated female and nonwhite managers as less effective when they hired a female or nonwhite job candidate rather than a white male candidate.
"It didn’t matter whether white male managers chose to hire a white male, white female, nonwhite male or nonwhite female — there was no difference in how participants rated their competence and performance,” the authors noted. "All managers were judged harshly if they hired someone who looked like them, unless they were a white male.”
Stereotypes in play
The workplace penalty women and non-whites face for promoting diversity is rooted in the power and status gap between men and women and between whites and nonwhites, the researchers said.
"High status groups, mainly white men, are given freedom to deviate from the status quo because their competence is assumed based on their membership in the high status group,” Johnson and Hekman wrote in the Harvard Business Review. "In contrast, when women and nonwhite leaders advocate for other women and nonwhites, it highlights their low-status demographics, activating the stereotype of incompetence, and leads to worse performance ratings.”
These career risks can prevent women and minorities from advocating for other women and minorities when they reach positions of power. "As organizations seek to reflect the broader societies in which they operate, increasing racial and gender balance is becoming more urgent,” they wrote. "The harsh reality [of this study] highlights the importance of putting appropriate structures and processes in place to guarantee the fair evaluation of women and minorities.
"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.”