The U.S. may have its first Black president and the Fortune 500 its first Black female chief executive, but African-American CEOs continue to remain a rarity, a mere one percent of the chiefs of those 500 largest companies. How could this be at a time when diversity is a principal watchword of corporate America?
A new study provides fresh perspective on this anomaly in a way that suggests how difficult change will be. Steering people's perceptions of African-Americans, it finds, are stereotypes about Blacks' leadership failings, biases whose persistence depends less on rigidity than on a mental flexibility that may not even be conscious.
The research, in the current issue of The Academy of Management Journal, uncovers evidence of this phenomenon in a source seemingly remote from the corporate world -- newspaper stories about college football quarterbacks.
Buried in these press reports, it finds, is a consistent pattern of associating losses with failed leadership when quarterbacks are Black but not when they are White, and associating victories with quarterbacks' native athletic ability when they are Black but not when they are White.
In the words of the study, by Andrew M. Carton of Penn State University and Ashleigh Shelby Rosette of Duke University, "Evaluators adjust the way they use stereotypes according to performance outcomes. Specifically, negative leader-based stereotypes will be applied after performance failure and non-leader compensatory stereotypes (i.e., Black leaders succeed because of marginal qualities that 'compensate' for negative qualities) will be applied after performance success. If Blacks are evaluated in terms of leadership ability only in the context of failure, then negative stereotypes regarding their leadership ability are able to more easily persist."
This elusive stereotyping, they observe, "may provide an important missing link in our understanding of bias against Black leaders and may serve as an important contributor to barriers that impede the advancement of Black leaders in organizations." They add: "In contrast to Black leaders, [such] processes are less likely to occur for White leaders because Whites lack strong racial stereotypes."
In part, the study had its genesis in Carton's own experience as a member of his college's varsity football team. As he recalls, "I became aware of certain racial biases, and, when I later enrolled as a graduate student at Duke, I mentioned my experience to Prof. Rosette, whose research prominently included bias in the workplace. Some lively discussions ensued, which ultimately led to this study. Quarterbacks are a good focus for any research on leadership, because they have an executive role on the field that is unique in sports. No other position in sports is equated with leadership as much as the quarterback in football."
The study's findings are based on an analysis of newspaper reports over the course of a season for each of 119 teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, the highest level of competition in college football. One story a week was randomly sampled from the leading newspaper of each school's locale, and coders unaware of the nature of the study were assigned to extract words or phrases that evaluated the quarterback and his performance -- for example, where reporters cited a quarterback for "intelligence" or for being "fleet-footed." In all, evaluative text was identified for 113 quarterbacks, 82 White and 31 Black. The text was quantified so that "if there were seven unique evaluative phrases related to incompetence published in reference to a particular quarterback in a given week, then the value for the category of incompetence was 7."
Analysis focused particularly on text that conveyed competence or incompetence and athleticism or its lack, the former two intimately related to leadership, the latter two not. As the authors explain, "The presumption that Black athletes are highly athletic yet lack the attributes of competence...has been supported by research from a number of social science disciplines, including communication studies, social psychology, and sports management." Of special interest to Carton and Rosette was how writers accounted for teams' success in view of this presumption of Black incompetence and whether they accounted for success or failure differently depending on quarterbacks' race.
What they found was that "Black quarterbacks were perceived to be significantly more incompetent than Whites when their respective teams lost...but this difference was not found when their respective teams won." For example, Black quarterbacks of defeated teams were more likely than defeated White quarterbacks to be tasked by reporters for making bad decisions under pressure. In contrast, Carton and Rosette found that "Black quarterbacks were perceived to be significantly more athletic than Whites when their respective teams won...whereas this difference was not found when their respective teams lost." For example, a winning Black quarterback was more likely than a victorious White quarterback to be described by such phrases as "very dangerous on the run" or "making plays with his feet."
To help rule out other explanations than bias for the difference in reporters' perceptions of incompetence, the authors sought to determine if it might be related to intellectual or scholastic factors. But neither the academic ratings of the colleges quarterbacks attended nor their grade point averages from high school were significantly associated with these perceptions.
Rosette sums up the study's findings in these terms: "Ascribing incompetence to a losing Black quarterback would not necessarily suggest racial bias; doing so when that quarterback wins, though, would seem suspect, not to mention illogical. How, then, to account for a black quarterback's success if you are biased? Ascribe the success to something that compensates for lack of leadership. That way the bias remains intact, but there is no evidence of it, and it survives for another day."
In the words of the study, "As opposed to the traditional assumption on the part of organizational scholars that stereotypes are rigidly applied when perceivers observe leaders, evaluators in our data set were flexible in the way that they applied their beliefs so that they could comprehend situations in which they were presented with information (i.e., performance) that contradicted prevailing stereotypes of Black leaders."
Adds Carton: "The tragic downside to this flexibility is that success is not enough to change stereotypes."
In the corporate world, what might be the compensatory factors that are comparable to athleticism in football? Carton and Rosette draw on evidence from other research to surmise that they are likely to vary. In entrepreneurial start-ups, Black success may be attributed to sheer "survival instincts." In organizations specializing in the arts, it may be ascribed to "primitive natural ability, such as natural rhythm." In organizations where there is a premium on physical strength, it may be explained by "physical prowess." Even at the top of the corporate ladder, "a Black CEO in a Fortune-500 firm may be viewed as successful because he or she is non-threatening and likeable."
How to combat a prejudice that comes in a great variety of guises and may be difficult to detect in any one of them? One way is for companies to institute "perception-based reform" in addition to, or as an alternative to, traditional diversity initiatives. This might involve fostering one-on-one or small-group interactions that can serve to enhance people's awareness of each other as individuals and not stereotypes. In addition, "Black leaders themselves can make their colleagues and subordinates more aware of their qualifications, aptitude, and experience. Although it is an additional burden that Black leaders will likely have to bear, they can nonetheless take action themselves to address the bias caused by [this] stereotyping."
But, as for the hope "that the continued success of black leaders will eventually uproot existing stereotypes... our findings cast doubt on this optimism by demonstrating that bias against Black leaders is sustained because evaluators are flexible in the way that they use stereotypes."
The new study, entitled "Explaining Bias Against Black Leaders: Integrating Theory on Information Processing and Goal-based Stereotyping," is in the December/January issue of the The Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with about 18,000 members in 103 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives and Academy of Management Learning and Education