Women and people of color in executive positions who push to make more diverse hires and promotions get penalized on their performance reviews, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Colorado. White men, on the other hand, get rewarded for valuing diversity.
The researchers looked at 362 executives, from CEO to director, and found that those who were ranked in the top 15 percent on a scale measuring their dedication to diversity got an average performance rating of 3.76. But those ratings improved the less women and people of color were seen to be promoting more nonwhite, female hires. A woman with an average dedication to diversity got a performance rating of 3.98, but a woman in the bottom 15 percent got a rating of 4.15, which represents a 10 percent increase in her review. Meanwhile, white men who pushed for greater diversity got a bump in their performance review scores.
The dings in performance feedback are likely because of how women and people are perceived. Female executives who value diversity were thought to be less warm and competent, and people of color were also thought to be less competent. White men, on the other hand, were given increased marks for warmth and ability when they sought greater diversity.
The researchers also conducted an experiment to test these ideas, having actors play executives and give speeches either in favor of hiring someone who looked like them or someone who didn’t. When women advocated for other women, they were seen as colder, and when people of color advocated for people like them, they were seen as less competent. “People are perceived as selfish when they advocate for someone who looks like them, unless they’re a white man,” said David Hekman, one of the study’s authors.
The findings shed some light on why getting one woman or person of color into the higher ranks doesn’t necessarily open up the doors for others to follow, as they may realize it’s risky to advocate for more diversity. And progress is slow: women now make up 14.6 percent of the executives at Fortune 500 companies, but that figure hasn’t made any progress in four years. Meanwhile there are just ten Hispanic CEOs, nine Asian CEOs, and six black CEOs at these companies.
The research could also help explain why some countries that have rules in place to increase gender diversity haven’t seen it trickle outward. Norway passed a quota requiring company boards to be 40 percent female, and women now make up 41 percent of public company boards. But 32 of the largest companies don’t have a female CEO and just 5.8 percent of general managers at public companies are women, suggesting the board quota hasn’t led to the hiring of more female executives. Other Nordic countries with board quotas also have small shares of big companies with female CEOs. Another study of Norway’s system found that the increase of women on boards hasn’t meant anything for women working below the C-suite level.
If white men could be counted on to be champions of diversity, the numbers might change faster. But unfortunately while today’s discrimination doesn’t look like outright exclusion or hostility, it takes the form of favoring people who are similar to you.