By 2020, 80% of the most powerful people in the United States were white. Considering that only about 61% of the U.S. population is white, this figure shows an ongoing race where white leaders are represented in positions of power. New research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology has found that whiteness is still the default for those in leadership positions in the United States.
“On the one hand, such racial gaps can be explained, at least in part, by structural forces: for example, white people with unrestricted access to wealth; White people benefiting from institutional segregation systems; or because of networking effects that cause more career opportunities than for non-whites, ”explained research authors Christopher D. Petsko and Ashleigh Shelby Rosette.
The authors, however, were interested in the strengths between people who could help explain the over-representation of white leaders. Specifically, this whiteness is in itself a prototypical feature of leaders. In other words, people have in mind the prototype of the concept of “leader” in their head that includes attributes that are indicative of leaders (i.e., charisma, intelligence, dedication). A key set of experiments conducted in 2008 suggested that Whiteness could be included in people’s leading prototypes; however, recent work has called this result into question.
Thus, the researchers wanted to revisit this finding in three experiments. In Experiment 1, the researchers hired a sample of 735 adults to participate in CloudResearch, the online research platform. Participants read a fictional news story that featured an interview with someone who was the leader or employee of a company. Most importantly, participants were randomly assigned to receive information about the percentage of the basic rate of white employees in the company (50% white, 20% white, or no information). Participants were then asked what race the person interviewed was.
The results indicated that the probability of perceiving the interviewee as white was the same, regardless of whether they were a leader or an employee. This effect was not affected by the information on the basic rate of white workers.
The researchers then conducted Experiment 2, where participants were given black-and-white facial images and told which face to look at as a leader concept. This method allowed participants to create a composite image of the faces chosen as representatives of the leaders. In addition, this method allowed the researchers to study racial associations more indirectly than experiment 1.
The researchers recruited 253 adult participants from CloudResearch for Experiment 2. They saw a pair of 300 blurred faces and chose what looked like a leader. The researchers then showed the composite images of these selections to a new group of participants, assessing which stereotypes the white or black images were.
The results show that the composite image of leadership was valued as more stereotyped than the composite image of the non-leader, which was valued as more stereotyped as Black. Contrary to Experiment 1, this finding suggests that Whiteness may still be associated with leader prototypes.
To conceptually repeat the findings of Experiment 2, the researchers conducted a third experiment where, instead of assessing faces, participants were given characteristics that came to mind when they thought of leaders or followers. The researchers hired 305 adult participants for the 3rd CloudResearch experiment. From a predefined list of 99 characteristics, participants selected the top 10 characteristics that are most representative of leaders or followers. Most importantly, these traits were selected from previous studies as linked to stereotyped whites to varying degrees. The results indicate that there were traits that were more stereotypically white than those used to characterize followers.
“In three previously recorded experiments, we found general evidence for the idea that the white leader effect sustains the study, but that white leader associations may be easier to perceive when participants use methods that prevent them from being socially desirable.” also, in our first experiment (Experiment 1), which was based on asking participants directly whether they thought the leaders (non-leaders) were white, we found no association between leadership and whiteness in the minds of the participants. However, in our second two experiments (experiments 2 and 3), we found support for the White-leader effect. “
One limitation of this work is that we cannot know why these prototypes and associations are measured indirectly only when they are revealed. It is difficult to know whether people are unaware of these associations or the actual attitudes they deliberately hide. Another limitation is that these data are limited to the context of racial relations in the United States.