Study: Americans Expect Business Leaders to Be White

Do you Asian Americans suffer from stereotypes in the business world? Of course we do. I think so, even if it is subtle. After attending business school, I joined a Silicon Valley software company as a product manager and attended a lot of trade shows during my first year (just as the tech boom became a bust). Inevitably, people would ask me at the show booth or in meetings, if I was an engineer on the product and I would have to correct their presumption that I was in fact, a product manager (though I did used to be a mechanical design engineer in the aerospace industry.) I found this an odd question, since most companies did not bring any engineers to any of the trade shows (business travel was something new to me prior to becoming a product manager). Quiet, non-confrontational, back office software engineers is what I think most Silicon Valley folks perceive Asian Americans to be. But we can and are much more – but may be brainwashed to think otherwise. I’ve blogged before about the an Asian glass ceiling.

I came across this interesting study last week in the Journal of Applied Psychology titled, “The White standard: Racial bias in leader categorization” as announced in this Duke University News release: Study: Americans Expect Business Leaders to Be White:

“The participants consistently assumed the leaders to be white when the race was not disclosed, even when the racial composition of the existing leaders in the organizations were described as 80 percent African American, 80 percent Hispanic American or 80 percent Asian American. Yet, this same presumption of “whiteness” was not observed when the participants assessed non-leaders…The researchers found no relation between the study participants’ race and their impressions of the leaders’ race. Participants who identified themselves as racial minorities assumed the leader to be white as often as the white participants. In experiments where the leader’s race was identified, white leaders were evaluated to be a better match with traditional leader expectations, such as successful performances, than were racial minorities. Participants who were told that a leader was responsible for the organization’s success and then asked to rate that leader’s effectiveness judged white leaders to be more effective than minority leaders who had achieved the same level of success. “Our results challenge a common explanation for racial bias –- that people who are white give preferential treatment to other people who are white,” Leonardelli said. “Our finding that Americans of all races associate successful leadership with being white demonstrates just how embedded this bias can be.””

Even minorities assumed that leaders were white and judged them to perform better than non-white leaders.

We all have an unconscious bias that leaders should be white. You’ve probably heard that there is a bias towards taller people for promotion and leadership positions, as well as often jokingly those with “good hair.” This has always been a very “Dilbert”-esque point, as the cartoonist Scott Adams has noted in his comic strip, books as well as blog posting, like in his blog posting: Looks Are Destiny:

“Hair and height are great predictors of future careers. If you’re a guy with a good head of hair, and you’re over 6’4”, you’ll probably have a career in upper management. The universe will also allow you to be an entrepreneur, lawyer, or doctor. You are not allowed to work in a toll booth.”

However satirical Scott Adams may be, there have been many scientific studies on this very subject, including a University of Florida study, as well as this older Journal of Applied Psychology (June 2004) published study, “The Effect of Physical Height on Workplace Success and Income: Preliminary Test of a Theoretical Model.” In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell says that 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs are 6-foot-2 and taller (vs. just 4% of all men). And even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has commented that Asians are not tall. So where does this put Asians and Asian Americans in business? According to the Committee of 100 (a national non-partisan organization composed of American citizens of Chinese descent), in their 2007 Corporate Board Report Card:

“Asian and APAs currently hold 1.5% of corporate board seats among Fortune 500 companies, a modest increase from 1.2% in 2005. 81 Fortune 500 board seats were held in 2006 by 69 Asian/APA directors, an increase from 56 in 2005. The percentage of Fortune 500 companies with at least one Asian or APA director increased to 15% in 2006 from 11% in 2005.”

In a recent BusinessWeek article (7/21/08), “For Corporate Boards, a Global Search,” – “Western companies, especially tech multinationals like SAP and Nokia, have begun looking to Asia’s emerging markets for their next board leaders.” Hiring and grooming Asian Americans with the business, language fluency and bi-cultural understanding makes sense and is good for the bottom line. Too bad we’re not white nor tall?

The White Man’s Burden should no longer be tolerated in the corporate world today, and it is nice to see increasing corporate leadership being represented by non-white males. Obviously, the study shows we still have a long ways to go that even if Asian Americans and other minorities still expect that our business leaders be white.

As much as I love Steve Carell in The Office, the show often reminds myself of the realities of the corporate world and why I, as well as many others often ask ourselves – yourself included, “How did the boss, manager, VP, or CEO ever get to where he is today?”… Maybe we’ve answered part of the question today – he looked the part.

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About John

I'm a Taiwanese-American and was born & raised in Western Massachusetts, went to college in upstate New York, worked in Connecticut, went to grad school in North Carolina and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1999 and have been living here ever since - love the weather and almost everything about the area (except the high cost of housing...)
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