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By: Stefanie K. Johnson, David R. Hekman and Elsa T. Chan
There are more CEOs of large U.S. companies who are named David (4.5%) than there are CEOs who are women (4.1%) — and David isn’t even the most common first name among CEOs. (That would be John, at 5.3%.)
Despite the ever-growing business case for diversity, roughly 85% of board members and executives are white men. This doesn’t mean that companies haven’t tried to change. Many have started investing hundreds of millions of dollars on diversity initiatives each year. But the biggest challenge seems to be figuring out how to overcome unconscious biases that get in the way of these well-intentioned programs. We recently conducted research that suggests a potential solution.
It’s well known that people have a bias in favor of preserving the status quo; change is uncomfortable. So because 95% of CEOs are white men, the status quo bias can lead board members to unconsciously prefer to hire more white men for leadership roles.
We conducted three studies to examine what happens when you change the status quo among finalists for a job position. In our first study, using an experimental setting, we had 144 undergraduate students review qualifications of three job candidates who made up a finalist pool of applicants. The candidates had the same credentials — the only difference among them was their race. We manipulated this by using names that sound stereotypically black (Dion Smith and Darnell Jones) or white (Connor Van Wagoner and David Jones), and we used a job that has some ambiguity about the racial status quo (athletic director).
Participants indicated the extent to which they agreed that each candidate was the best for the job. Half of them evaluated a finalist pool that had two white candidates and one black candidate, and the other half evaluated a finalist pool that had two black candidates and one white candidate. We found that when a majority of the finalists were white (demonstrating the status quo), participants tended to recommend hiring a white candidate. But when a majority of finalists were black, participants tended to recommend hiring a black candidate (F = 3.96, η2p = .03; p < .05).
Our second study, of 200 undergraduate students, was similar but focused on gender instead of race — and we found a similar result. We manipulated gender through the names of men and women, and we used the job of nurse manager. In this case, we expected that the status quo would be to hire women, so we looked at the effect of having two men in the pool. We found that when two of the three finalists were men, participants tended to recommend hiring a man, and when two of the three finalists were women, participants tended to recommend hiring a woman (F = 4.42, η2p = .03; p < .05).
The results from these studies were what we had predicted: When there were two minorities or women in the pool of finalists, the status quo changed, resulting in a woman or minority becoming the favored candidate.
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