There’s a question that perplexes management researchers who try to figure out why the glass ceiling is so hard to crack, particularly now that there are more minorities and women in the work world.
Why is it, they ask, that women and minorities who successfully climb the corporate ladder so often pull it up behind them, not helping other women and minorities succeed?
“It’s sacrificing your own future if you leave the ladder down,” David Hekman, an assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado, told a roomful of scholars and managers attending the Academy of Management conference in Philadelphia.
Hekman, who is white, described the findings of research he conducted with his colleague, Associate Professor Maw Der Foo at Colorado: White male executives who show that they value diversity by advocating the hiring and promotion of women and minorities are considered warm and competent by other managers. Women leaders who exhibit the same behavior regarding promoting diversity are seen as selfish, devious, and cold, he said. Minority executives who do the same may be seen as incompetent.
The attitude among white male executives appears to be, “It’s our house, you are a guest, and we control the guest list, so don’t even think of adding anyone else,” he said.
The conference’s title, “The Power of Words,” reflects how words affect the work world. One such word is diversity, the topic of a panel that included Hekman and three others.
On one hand, diversity brings new points of view and greater productivity, said Wei Zheng, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin. On the other hand, minority members of groups can be marginalized, interfering with productivity.
Her study of social networks shows that it is not the quantity of interactions, but information control that affects multi-ethnic group productivity, she said.
Carliss Miller, an African-American doctoral student at the University of Texas at Dallas, talked about her research into “crab-in-the-barrel” syndrome, in which, like captured crabs that pull each other back into the barrel or basket, members of minority or outsider groups “hold each other back” from succeeding. The behavior is usually subtle, she told the group – minor incivility and gossip, with the intent to harm being ambiguous and easily deniable.
What happens in the workplace often mirrors what happened in childhood, said Nicole C. Jones Young, an African-American doctoral student at the University of Connecticut.
African-Americans who had been “tokens” in elementary or high school and became “tokens” in the workplace tended to be less welcoming when joined at work by a second member of their ethnic group, she said, based on her research. That’s especially the case if the newcomer exhibits stereotypical behavior.
“Some ‘tokens,’ ” she said, “are interested in maintaining their unique status.”