The XX Factor

Women Can Succeed in Corporate America, as Long as They Don’t Promote Other Women

Not warm enough.

Photo by stockyimages/Shutterstock

A new study by management and entrepreneurship professors at the University of Colorado–Boulder asked the bosses and peers of 362 executives to rate those executives on their performance, warmth, competence, and “diversity-valuing behavior,” or commitment to racial and gender diversity at the company. (The paper will be presented at next month’s Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management.) They found that women and people of color who demonstrated strong diversity-valuing behavior received lower performance ratings than white men who demonstrated the same. Women who promote other women “will tend to be viewed as less warm” than white men who also value diversity, the researchers found. (Jill Abramson just earned a new talking point in her New York Times post-firing interview tour.) Meanwhile, minority executives who value diversity risk being “stereotyped as incompetent.”

By examining both gender and race in the study, this analysis smartly sidesteps the common excuse for why women’s careers stall at the middle of the ladder (because they devote themselves to their children) to show that deep down, the people who run these companies appear to believe that women and people of color should only succeed to a certain level, and rationalize that belief by coding their discrimination in corporate metrics: Most women just lack the temperament for management, and most people of color just lack the skill to perform. The few who manage to escape that assessment do so by slyly reinforcing the company’s ingrained sexism and racism: As they snag their own promotions, they are content to act as the exceptions that prove the rule. Women and people of color who demonstrated a low level of diversity-valuing behavior didn’t see their performance scores take a dip.

Meanwhile, white male managers who promote women and people of color aren’t penalized for valuing diversity. Perhaps that’s because, when a white man recruits a diverse group of people to work beneath him, he’s improving the company’s optics without disrupting the composition of its upper rungs. But when a woman or person of color does it, she’s threatening the system. As the authors put it: “Minority and women leaders’ engagement in diversity-valuing behavior may be viewed as selfishly advancing the social standing of their own low-status demographic groups.”

This is why “token” female and minority managers are particularly valuable to their companies—they allow executives to point to their commitment to promoting women and people of color (or rather, a woman and a person of color) without actually fostering widespread diversity in the ranks. Women and people of color who succeed in being seen as warm or competent (by disavowing a commitment to diversity) are then coded by their companies as what the researchers call “social outsiders” from their gender and race. Most of the bosses included in the study were white men (no duh), but female and minority bosses surveyed rated their diversity-minded colleagues similarly—perhaps because reinforcing the status quo is a requirement for cracking the glass ceiling.

This study ultimately reinforces what we already know: that the glass ceiling is not really a barrier that can be broken by the hard work of determined individual women and people of color. It’s a limit imposed from above. And it’s time for the bosses to break their glass floor.