Perception Is Slowing Down Progress

I’m convinced that perception is half the reason progress in diversity-related matters is slow. How those in power look at you, their unspoken but powerful judgments, are like microinequities on steroids.

Even when you try to do something good, if you’re a minority, something bad will appear and follow you like a bad smell. Take Rachel Feintzeig’s recent piece “Women Penalized for Promoting Women, Study Finds,” for instance.

Feintzeig writes about new research from the University of Colorado that found women and non-white executives who advocate for other minorities to be promoted or hired often get lower performance ratings than white males who do the same thing. Why? Perception.

White men pushing white men forward is normal, expected and understood. That is the way of the world, what we’re all used to, so no one raises a brow. Minorities doing the same? Well, that is perceived as weird, unnecessary, pushy, even arrogant. It’s like the powers that be — and yes, that was deliberately vague because it’s not just white men who execute those workplace block and tackles — are saying, “First you want power and influence. You get it and now you want to share it? We’re confused. Why do you want that? That’s not your place. You’re stepping outside what we are comfortable with you doing.” *crickets chirping*

It reminds me of an incident in Saks many years ago — stop me if you’ve already heard this one — when I visited the Kiehl’s counter. I was asking the employee about different products, and I heard one white woman say to the other, “they use Kiehl’s products too?” I turned around; she was looking right at me.

I was doing something she didn’t think a black woman should be doing, and she was likely confused and disconcerted by it. That didn’t stop me from buying what I wanted, however. If memory serves I may have even winked at the old bat. I know, I know, bad Kellye, but I can never resist it.

David Hekman, an author of the study and an assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, said point blank: “People are perceived as selfish when they advocate for someone who looks like them, unless they’re a white man.” White men, however, may actually enjoy a boost in performance ratings when they are perceived to value diversity.

In addition to gathering and interpreting data from a pool of 362 executives — including CEOs — in a variety of industries, Hekman and his fellow researchers also performed an experiment with actors playing company leaders advocating for one of their own. “When female actors read from a pro-diversity script, study participants rated them as colder, and when non-white actors read from a pro-diversity script, they were rated as less competent,” Feintzeig wrote.

Hekman said using terms like demographic-unselfishness in place of diversity could help eliminate this kind of behavior, but that bugs me. It seems too politically correct. Let’s call a spade a spade — nicely and respectfully, of course — point out the problem, and set some processes in place to prevent subjective gender and minority-related success blocking.

It won’t be nearly as easy to do as it was for me to write that last sentence, but it can be done, and the diversity executive is the perfect person to shepherd in the new order, one based on merit, performance and equal consideration for all candidates.

Further, minorities can’t let this study data prevent them from doing the right thing. We have to push each other forward, perception be damned. My mother, God bless her frequently inappropriate comment-making soul, loves to say, ‘Black people are the only group in this country who refuse to work together to make it. Every other race of people will come here, band together and thrive. Us, no.’

Of course, there’s more to it than that rather loaded statement, but the bottom line is, if minorities don’t push each other forward, if we don’t help to pave the way for more opportunities for each other, we may not get them.