A recent study found that not only are White football coaches more likely to be in head coach positions, but the more White they look, the truer this is. The study, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, further uncovered causal evidence that looking more White makes a person more likely to be perceived as a suitable leader.
A body of research has suggested that a person’s life outcomes are influenced by the degree to which their physical appearance matches the stereotypes of their racial group — a concept called racial phenotypic stereotypicality. For example, a Black person whose physical appearance is perceived as more typically Black is more likely to be stopped by police.
Study author Melissa J. Williams and her colleagues opted to study this phenomenon with respect to a White stereotype. Specifically, they conducted two studies to explore whether White people whose physical appearances are more stereotypically White would have a higher likelihood of being in a leadership position and a higher likelihood of being viewed as suitable for leadership.
“I am fascinated by the complexities of racial identity,” said Williams, an associate professor at Emory’s Goizueta Business School. “Race and ethnicity have both internal aspects (such as the importance a person places on their cultural heritage) and external aspects (such as how other people perceive a person’s physical appearance). Each of these aspects has a different effect on the role that race plays in a person’s life.”
“In terms of the specific setting we explored in this paper, football leadership represents an interesting collision of historical stereotypes about Black and White individuals. Black individuals, especially Black men, are stereotyped as good at sports and as physically imposing – characteristics that go with being good at football. Whereas White individuals, especially White men, are stereotyped as confident and charismatic – characteristics that go with being good at leadership. That combination of stereotypes got us interested in looking at who makes it to the top in football coaching, and how their appearance plays into their success.”
For their first study, they obtained data from a sample of 1,106 U.S. football coaches (808 White and 298 Black coaches) from the 2008–2009 season. Based on the results of three pilot studies, each coach was categorized as either Black or White and was given a stereotypicality rating and an attractiveness rating.
The study analyzed how a coach’s race impacted their likelihood of holding a leadership role — for example, being a head coach or coordinator versus a position coach. The analysis controlled for the coaches’ age, years of experience, and attractiveness.
The findings revealed that White coaches were more likely than Black coaches to occupy leadership roles. Moreover, among White coaches, the more stereotypically White their appearance, the greater the likelihood they occupied a leadership role. When it came to specific roles, appearing stereotypically White increased the likelihood of being a head coach among White coaches. By contrast, appearing stereotypically Black decreased the likelihood of being a head coach among Black coaches.
“If a person had any doubts that race matters in terms of who makes it to top positions, they should just let those doubts go at this point,” Williams told PsyPost. “Football is a profession where there is no minority pipeline problem – collegiate coaches are almost all former players, but the percentage of players who are Black is much higher than the percentage of coaches who are Black. At each level of possible promotion in our data, Black coaches were less likely than White coaches to make it to the next level.”
In a second study, Williams and team had a sample of 375 football fans view photos of real college football players. Through a series of trials, participants were shown side-by-side images of same-race football coaches, with one being high and the other low in racial stereotypicality. Participants were asked to select which coach they felt would be promoted to head coach in the future.
The results revealed that when the two players were White, participants chose the more stereotypical photo as more likely to become head coach in 70% of trials. But when the two players were Black, participants chose the more stereotypical photo only 52% of the time. Thus, stereotypicality had a stronger effect on being perceived as a leader for White compared to Black football players. Further analysis revealed that the participants chose the more stereotypical White player over the less stereotypical White player at higher rates than chance — offering evidence of causality.
“We show that not only is it helpful to be a White individual if you want to hold a leadership role – it helps to have a face that is more typically White-looking,” Williams explained. “That aspect is absent from our current conversations about diversity. People in our study looked at White faces that were more typically White and less typically White, and they thought the faces that were more typically White were more likely headed to leadership roles.”
“The reason we as a society hold stereotypes that White individuals are more suited for leadership is because we observe that most of the people who hold the highest leadership positions are not only White but are very White-appearing. This reinforces the stereotype in our minds every time we look at the face of a politician or CEO or other leader.”
“And then when someone is in a position to hire or recommend someone for a leadership role, they may be unconsciously viewing White individuals as somehow fitting their image if a good leader – especially if they have a more White-typical appearance,” Williams said. “It’s a vicious cycle such that stereotypes about Whites and leaderships cause behaviors that preference Whites for leadership roles, which in turn reinforces stereotypes and the cycle continues.”
The researchers were particularly surprised by how robust the findings were for White players.
“We went in with the hypotheses that racial phenotypic stereotypicality (or how much a person is seen as looking typical vs. atypical of their racial group) would matter differently for White and Black coaches, but the effect was quite strong, and it emerged in the experimental results as well,” Williams told PsyPost. “Looking more White-typical (vs. less White-typical) caused individuals in our data to be rated as more suited for leadership roles.”
“This is important because I doubt that most people are consciously aware that they might be perceiving two White individuals differently as a result of which person looks more White. In the real world, when a hiring manager chooses one White candidate over another White candidate for a leadership role, the hiring manager probably assumes that their decision is free of racial bias in that case – because both individuals are White. But it may not be free of bias if the decision was influenced by a stereotype that Whiteness is good for leadership.”
The authors noted that the implications of this research could be huge, given the enormous salaries earned by U.S. college football head coaches. “This makes the failure to obtain a leadership role a potentially enormous financial loss,” Williams and her colleagues wrote. “More broadly, leadership is a professionally and personally important life outcome that may not be equally available to all Americans.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“Our data looked at one form of leadership (football coaching leadership) at one point in time,” Williams said. “It is worth exploring the degree to which this phenomenon recurs in other industries or settings. Our data also explored only male candidates for leadership, as all the people in our dataset were men. Future research should investigate whether these phenomenon extend to women leaders as well.”
Overall, the researchers said their findings, “provide insight into the insidious nature of racial stereotypes, the role of physical appearance in perpetuating them, and how leadership attainment may be constrained for those who do not look the part.”
The study, “Looking the Part: Stereotypicality in Appearance Among White Professionals Predicts Leadership Attainment and Perceived Leadership Suitability”, was authored by Melissa J. Williams, James B. Wade, Tosen Nwadei, Anand Swaminathan, C. Keith Harrison, and Scott Bukstein.