In 2020, 80% of the most powerful people in the United States were White. Considering only around 61% of the U.S. population is White, this figure demonstrates a persistent racial gap where White leaders are overrepresented in positions of power. New research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that Whiteness may still be presumed the default for those in positions of leadership in the United States.
“On the one hand, racial gaps like these can be explained, at least in part, by structural forces: for example, by White individuals having disproportionate access to wealth; by White individuals benefitting from systems of institutional segregation; or by network effects that result in greater career opportunities for White than for non-White individuals,” explain study authors Christopher D. Petsko and Ashleigh Shelby Rosette.
The authors, however, were interested in interpersonal forces that could help explain the overrepresentation of White leaders. Specifically, that Whiteness in and of itself is a prototypical attribute of leaders. In other words, people have prototypes in their mind of what the concept of “leader” is that comprises attributes typically representative of leaders (i.e., charisma, intelligence, dedication). A pivotal set of experiments in 2008 suggested that Whiteness might be included in people’s prototypes of leaders; however, more recent work has called this result into question.
Thus, the researchers sought to re-address this finding in three experiments. In Experiment 1, researchers recruited a sample of 735 adults on CloudResearch, an online research platform, to participate. Participants read a fictitious news article that featured an interview with someone who was either a leader or an employee at a company. Importantly, participants were also randomly assigned to receive information about the base rate percentage of White employees at the company (50% White, 20% White, or no info). Participants then were asked what they thought the race of the person interviewed was.
Results indicated the interviewee was equally likely to be perceived as White regardless of whether they were a leader or an employee. This effect was not impacted by information about the base rate of White employees.
Next, researchers conducted Experiment 2 where participants were given black-and-white facial images and told to select which face looks most similar to the concept of leaders. This method allowed researchers to then create a composite image of the faces that participants chose as representative of leaders. Further, this method allowed researchers to study racial associations more indirectly than Experiment 1.
Researchers recruited 253 adult participants from CloudResearch for Experiment 2. They viewed 300 pairs of blurry faces and chose which one looked more like a leader. Researchers then showed the composite images of these selections to a new group of participants who rated the images on how stereotypically White or Black they were.
Results show that the composite image of the leader was rated as more stereotypically White compared to the composite image of the non-leader, which was rated as more stereotypically Black. Contrary to Experiment 1, this finding suggests Whiteness may still be associated with leader prototypes.
To conceptually replicate findings from Experiment 2, researchers conducted a third experiment where instead of rating faces participants gave traits that came to mind when they thought of leaders or followers. Researchers recruited 305 adult participants from CloudResearch for Experiment 3. From a predetermined list of 99 traits, participants selected the top 10 traits that are most representative of either leaders or followers. Importantly, these traits were selected from previous research as being stereotypically White associated to varying extents. Results indicate leaders were characterized by traits that more stereotypically White than those used to characterize followers.
“Across three preregistered experiments, we found general evidence in favor of the idea that the White-leader effect holds up to scrutiny, but that White-leader associations may be easier to detect when using methods that circumvent participants’ ability to engage in socially desirable responding,” concluded the researchers. “Indeed, in our first experiment (Experiment 1), which relied on asking participants directly about whether they thought leaders (vs. nonleaders) were White, we found no evidence of an association in participants’ minds between leaders and Whiteness. However, in our second two experiments (Experiments 2 and 3), we found support for the White-leader effect.”
One limitation to this work is that we cannot know why these prototypes and associations are revealed only when measured indirectly. It is difficult to know whether people are unaware of these associations or deliberately conceal true attitudes. Another limitation is that these data are limited to the context of race relations in the United States.