“It’s not that I prefer male bosses…”

Bourree Lam begins her article “A Workplace-Diversity Dilemma” for The Atlantic with:

“Several of my female friends working in various industries have recently expressed a similar disheartening sentiment: ‘It’s not that I prefer male bosses, but they’re the only ones who give me opportunities and successfully fight for me.’”

Lam ponders the multiple and dangerous ways in which these sentiments come to undermine female participation and leadership in businesses. She asks us how female managers can succeed if those who report to them don’t trust their ability to navigate workplace structures. “Put more pointedly, what if talented employees prefer and benefit from male leadership because professional culture enables men to have an edge in getting things done?”

With workplace trends showing that having women and persons of color in leadership positions makes businesses financially and structurally better, one might think that individuals support diversity across the board. Yet as David Hekman, assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, suggests, women and nonwhite executives receive greater criticism for promoting diversity compared to white men. In a study of 350 U.S. executives in 26 industries, Hekman and researchers from the National University of Singapore and the University Texas found that “white women and nonwhite executives who, in the study’s framework, valued diversity were rated as being less competent and having lower performance.” The researchers found that in contrast, “white male executives who promoted diversity experienced slightly better ratings: This group was perceived as competent regardless of whether they had made an issue of diversity.”

Belonging to the categories of “white” and “male” has long been linked to normalcy and a higher racial, social, economic and political status, which leads to the perception that white men who promote diversity are “do-gooders.” Women and non-white executives who do the same receive professional repercussions and appear incompetent. What we need is to continue promoting diversity in leadership positions in business, but also address unconscious biases at all levels of organizations. As Lam aptly puts it, “when companies put the onus on their employees to fight for diversity, it might unfairly punish women and people of color.”

Do you perceive a similar double standard in your organization? How do you think real and positive change can occur in business practice (and in life in general)?

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