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Stefanie Johnson

University of Colorado Boulder

Associate Professor of Management

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Damned if they don’t value diversity – damned if they do


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President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Chief Judge Merrick Garland, a white man, elicited harsh criticism from black women, who had expected that he would nominate a black woman to the nation’s highest court.

Likewise, at a presidential political rally for Senator Hillary Clinton, Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said that there was a “special place in hell” reserved for women who don’t help other women.

These anecdotes suggest that women and nonwhites are damned if they don’t help members of their own demographic groups. However, the recent experience of Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer, an African-American female, shows that they are damned if they do. When Brewer publicly stated her commitment to increasing diversity at Sam’s Club, her customers reacted by accusing her of being “racist” against white men and threatening to boycott the company.

Although nonwhites and women face appear to face backlash whether they leave the ladder up behind them or not, white men do not face the same scrutiny when they hire and promote fellow white men. White men comprise only 34% of the population, but they hold 85% of corporate executive and board positions.

Given that these numbers have not budged for decades, the obvious conclusion is that white men are continuing to select and promote other white men without anyone batting an eyelash. Certainly our society must be passing over much of our top leadership talent by choosing nearly all of our top leaders from just one-third of the population (i.e. the white men).

This set of sad facts led us to examine the extent to which women and nonwhite executives really are damned if they do help people who look like themselves.

What did our research set out to do?

In our first study, we assessed 350 executives on several diversity-valuing behaviors that everyone should be doing – respecting cultural, religious, gender and racial differences, valuing working with a diverse group of people, and feeling comfortable managing people from different racial or cultural backgrounds.

One really novel aspect of this research is that through many iterations with reviewers, we generated a definition of diversity-valuing behavior, which is behavior that promotes demographic balance within organizations (e.g. behaviors such as hiring and promoting minorities and women).

Engaging in diversity-valuing behaviors had little benefit in terms of boss-ratings of executives’ competence or performance. But, female and minority executives who engaged in diversity-valuing behaviors were rated as less competent and lower performers than other executives.  

We replicated the findings in an experiment of 307 working adults who were asked to review a hiring decision made by a fictitious white male or nonwhite male (Asian and Black male and female and white female) manager. We changed only two things – the photo of the hiring manager (to indicate the manager’s race and sex) and whether or not that manager chose to hire a white man or a nonwhite wo/man.

Nonwhite male and female managers who hired a nonwhite male or female job candidate were perceived as incompetent and rated as less effective than when they hired a white male.

Similar to our first study, whether white male managers chose to hire a white male, white female, nonwhite male or nonwhite female had no impact on judgments of white male managers’ competence and performance. Basically, all managers were evaluated negatively for favoring their in-group, except white men.

The competence key

Perceived incompetence is the core of most of the stereotypes that tend to be leveled against nonwhites and women, particularly at work.

When women and nonwhites advocate for their own group, observers may judge them as being interpersonally warm (for helping members of society’s out-group) or they may judge them as being interpersonally cold (for competing against society’s cool kids).

The way stereotypes work is that either way, whether women and nonwhites are viewed as warm or cold for valuing diversity, these warm/cold judgments lead women and nonwhite leaders to be judged as less competent and worse performing.

By engaging in diversity-valuing behavior, nonwhite and female leaders highlight their low-status demographics, which leads others to stereotype such low-status leaders as incompetent. In contrast, men are afforded a certain degree of latitude in their decision-making and, therefore, given the freedom to advocate for women and non-whites if they choose to do so. 

In sum, diversity-valuing behavior performed by low-status leaders highlights such leaders’ low-status demographics, activates status-based competence stereotypes, and, therefore, leads to worse performance ratings.

 So what?

We found clear and consistent evidence that ethnic minorities and women who engage in diversity-valuing behavior are penalized in terms of competence and effectiveness.

A great deal of popular press writing on the glass ceiling suggests the minorities prevent their fellow minorities from advancing and women engage in “cat fights” with other women in an effort to keep other women down.

Our findings may explain why such “queen bee” and “crab mentality” persists; minority and women leaders engage in diversity-valuing behavior at their own peril, ironically reinforcing the glass ceiling. 

So, what do organizations do with the information that women and minorities who promote diversity will be penalized?

First, it could be that organizations try to recruit white men to take over projects around diversity. But, when Twitter hired a white male, Jeffrey Siminoff, as their president of diversity and inclusion in 2015, they were met with criticism as well.

Also, many women and minorities want to engage in diversity efforts because they feel personally involved in the issues. It does not seem that women and minorities should be excluded from these efforts, but awareness of the potential backlash should be made explicit so that people can interrupt their unconscious biases.

Also, as Deloitte suggested by removing ERGs (employee resource groups) earlier this year, diversity should not be a topic that is only the concern of women and minorities.

Clearly, the entire business benefits when there is a diverse workforce, so everyone should be involved in the diversity strategy.

This article was co-authored by Stefanie K. Johnson and David Hekman, both associate professors at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Stefanie Johnson

Associate Professor of Management

Read more from Stefanie Johnson

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