In 2021, women leaders left their companies at a higher rate than their male counterparts, citing lack of management support as a key reason for their departure. This trend sparks interest in understanding why women and racial minority top managers may experience greater isolation when climbing the corporate ladder. Recent research by Gareth D. Keeves and James D. Westphal sheds light on this issue by investigating how peer support may decline when people experience career successes. “Our research suggests that women and racial minorities tend to be disadvantaged and relatively isolated in help networks,” said Keeves, “in part because white males are often biased about the value of the advice that they give to (and receive from) minorities.”
Keeves and Westphal were motivated to understand the challenges faced by women and racial minority executives when they reach senior positions. “A positive development in the recent time period has been an increased number of female and racial minorities gaining senior management positions,” Keeves said. “Given that the success of leaders is influenced by the support that they received from colleagues, we felt it important to consider additional challenges that female and racial minorities may face in gaining access to support following their advancement.”
“White males are often biased about the value of the advice that they give to (and receive from) minorities.”
Research shows that top managers depend on the help of their peers to advance their careers and improve their decision-making. This help can take many forms, such as referrals to a board of directors, information sharing, and advice. However, as managers rise in their careers, they often find it harder to obtain this type of support from their peers. In some cases, managers even report that peers who used to help them stop supporting their work.
Past research has also shown that women and racial minorities often receive help differently due to their minority status in the corporate world. For example, when a woman or a racial minority executive is appointed CEO of a company, white male executives in that company are less likely to provide support to their female and racial minority colleagues than they did before their appointment.
To better understand these phenomena, Keeves and Westphal surveyed US CEOs and top managers over a nine-year period. They asked managers about the advice and information they provided to or received from their peers in the past year. More importantly, they also inquired about managers’ perceptions of how their peers help others.
The results showed a clear pattern. Managers perceived that their peers who were newly appointed to corporate and non-corporate board positions did not return the help that the managers had given them. As a result, these managers shared less information with their peers and assessed their peers’ performance in a more negative light. They were also more likely to blame poor financial results on their peers’ decisions rather than on external factors.
The researchers identified two social psychological factors that contribute to these perceptions. First, the managers tended to overestimate the value of their own help. Second, newly appointed peers that received help were more likely to attribute their success to their own individual work and effort rather than the help they received. The distortions between givers and receivers on how help is valued explain why managers often perceive their help as being under-reciprocated.
Next, Keeves and Westphal explored whether women and racial minority managers are differently affected than white male managers. They found that white male managers were more likely to perceive newly appointed women and racial minority peers as not reciprocating their help compared to newly appointed white male peers. This occurred for two reasons. On the one hand, white male managers had a distorted view of how much their help contributed to the success of women and racial minority managers. That is, they underestimated the ability of women and racial minority managers to be successful without their help. Rather—due to bias—they believed the success of these managers came about because of external circumstances or supports.
“While much policy focus has been on increasing the number of women and racial minority executives in senior leadership positions, this study suggests that a lack of support may hinder their ability to succeed in these positions.”
On the other hand, women and racial minority managers did not share the same expectations as white male managers that they should reciprocate the help previously given to them. Women and racial minority managers were instead more likely to help others because of their own difficult experiences starting their careers, rather than expecting benefits in return.
However, real consequences arise when women and racial minority managers are seen as not returning the help that was given them. It may explain why they feel further isolated when they are appointed to senior leadership positions. While much policy focus has been on increasing the number of women and racial minority executives in senior leadership positions, this study suggests that a lack of support may hinder their ability to succeed in these positions. When asked about the practical implications of this study, Keeves recommended that organizations “sponsor support groups of women and racial minority leaders who meet periodically to exchange input and advice, and crucially, to share their contacts to leaders and experts outside the group who can provide advice on the specific job and career-related challenges that they’re facing.”
Keeves added that “minority support groups can be valuable in linking women and minority leaders to relatively supportive, fair-minded, and experienced white male colleagues, as well as to fellow minorities who are facing similar challenges.” In the meantime, to put it in their own words, Keeves and Westphal hope that their study ultimately drives increased attention to how such challenges can be reduced. “Being aware of this general tendency towards systematic differences in the perceptions of the value of help, and to thus seek to reciprocate more generously, may be a way for managers to counteract this,” Keeves said.
LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company (2022) Women in the Workplace. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace
Gareth D. Keeves, James D. Westphal (2021) From Help to Harm: Increases in Status, Perceived Under-Reciprocation, and the Consequences for Access to Strategic Help and Social Undermining Among Female, Racial Minority, and White Male Top Managers. Organization Science 32(4):1120-1148.
McDonald, M. L., Keeves, G. D., & Westphal, J. D. (2018). One step forward, one step back: White male top manager organizational identification and helping behavior toward other executives following the appointment of a female or racial minority CEO. Academy of Management Journal, 61(2), 405-439.
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