Equality on the Job is Trickier Than We Thought

Women make up about half of the American workforce, but there is still a significant amount of discrimination. It’s no secret that the tech industry is steeped in bro culture. In addition, a recent study has showed that sexual harassment is ubiquitous, something women in the sciences have known since forever.

These barriers aren’t trivial, so it’s always good to see women like Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg climb the corporate ladder. If we can get more women at the top, my thinking went, maybe we can get more diversity throughout. However, it turns out that it might be a bit more complicated than that.

A new study out of the University of Colorado found that for women and racial minorities, advocating for candidates that look like them leads to poorer performance reviews. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Women can lean in and try to bridge the confidence gap all they want, but they’re going to be penalized for advocating for other women, just like non-whites are,” said David Hekman, an author of the study and an assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business.

Often, having women or minorities atop a company is perceived as a marker of progress for diversity efforts, but Hekman’s research suggests their presence might not have a large impact on the rest of the organization. If they believe it’s too risky to advocate for their own groups, it makes sense that successful women and non-white leaders would end up surrounded by white males in the executive suite, he said.

The study looked at 362 executives. The researchers ranked these executives by their dedication to diversity. The top 15 percent had an average performance rating of 3.76. As you moved down the rankings, the researchers saw an increase in performance review ratings. In fact, the bottom 15 percent had a performance review rating of 4.15, which is a 10 percent increase from the reviews of the executives at the top of the scale. The times this did not hold true? When the executive was a white man. In those cases, if the executive valued diversity he got a little bump in his score.

The researchers did another experiment. In this case, they used actors who played the role of company leaders. Each gave a speech that encouraged the company to either hire someone who looked like them or did not look like them. When the female actors read a pro-diversity script, they were rated as “colder.” Non-white actors suffered a similar fate. When they read fro the pro-diversity script, they were rated as less competent. If white men promote each other, though, that’s OK.

It’s rare for one study to give the entire picture of anything, but I think this actually fits in pretty well with what we see out in the world. The study serves to illustrate two things. First, it illustrates this idea that white men are the default human and that they and they alone can be truly impartial. It was once argued that women and racial minorities should not hear cases that involve sexual or racial discrimination because they could not possibly be impartial on those issues. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was raked over the coals for her “wise Latina” comment. But the fact is that everyone carries with them their life experiences. However, the white male perspective has been so dominant for so long that it has become default. Any woman or member of a racial minority (or someone who is both) looks somehow self-serving when they try to open doors for more people like them.

Second, this study is more evidence that white men get more praise for just being a decent human being. This kind of phenomenon shows up in home life. Fathers who take care of their own children are said to be “babysitting” instead of “parenting.” What it means to be a good parent shifts with gender expectations.

Identical words can be used to describe a mother and a father, but those words do not retain a consistent definition: They are translated to reflect parenting stereotypes. A mother and a father might be depicted as “very involved,” but most people have gendered expectations about what “very involved” means, and it has little do with time spent with children or responsibilities assumed for them. There were instances in which, despite engaging in the same behaviors, a mother who said “she could do more” and a father who said “he did a lot” were judged differently…

“The ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of parenting wasn’t judged on the actual objective behavioral evidence, but on how the behavior compared other judgment standards, and that judgment standard is different for men and women,” said [former tenured professor Diane] Kobrynowicz.

Fathers who take an active role in the upbringing of their own children are given a disproportionate amount of praise. Sharing the parenting duties is not something we expect of fathers, but it’s something we like, so it gets positive attention. I think the same thing might be happening in in the University of Colorado study. White men aren’t necessarily expected to care about diversity. In fact, white men might have something to lose. So they get a pat on the back and an increased performance review.

This type of study is discouraging because it shows just how deep our biases run. Our stupid brains have learned these stereotypes so well that they almost seem natural. But, now that we know more about what is hindering diversity programs, we can try to find ways to mitigate it. At the very least it gives us an opportunity to think deeply about why we think the things we do.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven10 months ago


Jerome S
Jerome S10 months ago

thanks for sharing.

Shalvah Landy
Past Member 3 years ago

Thank you.

Janis K.
Janis K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Joan E.
Joan E3 years ago

I concede that corporate culture may be trailing, but I've seen a great deal of change in the perception of women in the workplace. It is no longer noteworthy to encounter a woman doctor, a woman dentist, a woman Senator, a woman CEO, a woman scientist or screenwriter or composer, a woman Presidential candidate. Women are taken much more seriously as multifaceted, capable adults and citizens. Yes, there is a backlash by those most threatened, thus the Republican War on Women as well as their blind hatred of Obama. But the reactionary right wouldn't feel the need to do this had the culture not changed so much in the direction of equality over the last decades.

Jose Pan
Jose Roberto Pan3 years ago

Parabéns a todas as mulheres que mostram todo o valor e capacidade profissional e
que lutam pela igualdade neste mundo machista e preconceituoso.

Anna Wang
Anna Meng Wang3 years ago


Arild Warud


Lisa Millar
Past Member 3 years ago


Maria Teresa Schollhorn

Thanks for the information.