Research Brief

White Men Admire a Company That Employs White Women

But white men, seeing African American women employed, don’t react so favorably

If you believe the mission statements and marketing, Corporate America has embraced diversity. Studies show, however, that many white men remain skeptical of programs aimed at bringing more women and minorities into the workplace.

study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly by Skidmore College’s Leigh Wilton, Rutgers’ Diana Sanchez, UCLA Anderson’s Miguel Unzueta, University of Washington’s Cheryl Kaiser and University of Virginia’s Nava Caluori initially diverges from those earlier studies.

Across four experiments, white male respondents described a company that promoted its gender diversity as broader-minded than a company that did not advertise its diversity. And in three out of the four experiments, the respondents also ranked the company as more prestigious.

Opt In to the Review Monthly Email Update.

But those findings applied to gender-diverse companies that mentioned or pictured white women in their brochures. When researchers substituted black women in the promotional materials, white men did not give the company the same reputational boost.

“There is a sizable amount of evidence that high-status members, such as white men, can be threatened with diversity, and people usually associate diversity with race,” Skidmore’s Wilton explained in a telephone interview.

The authors focused on the perceptions of white men because they “most frequently occupy positions of power and influence within corporations,” the paper explains. Within companies, white men also make “particularly effective allies” for people in other groups because white men don’t face penalties for supporting such programs in the workplace, according to a study published in 2017 and cited in the research.

Forging those alliances isn’t easy. White men hold 68% of C-suite positions, compared to just 4% for women of color, according to a 2019 report on women in the workplace by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org.

Even when progress is being made, the gains are finding resistance. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that Copart Inc., the last S&P 500 company with an all-male board, finally got its first female member. Women now hold 27% of all S&P 500 board seats, up from 17% in 2012. But those advances aren’t necessarily being embraced by the still predominantly white men in charge of most boardrooms.

In consulting firm PwC’s 2019 Annual Corporate Directors Survey, 68% of directors surveyed felt investors were paying too much attention to gender diversity, nearly double the percentage of the previous year.

Wilton and co-authors’ four gender diversity experiments were conducted in English and dealt with U.S. corporate culture. The authors recruited white men currently employed, attending school or closely affiliated with an organization, who speak English well and live in the U.S. They used Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing marketplace, to find participants.

In the first two studies, participants were asked to review one of two profiles for a software firm. In one version, the company was described as being gender diverse, a top company for women with a large percentage of women employees (45% overall and 20% in leadership positions). The brochure also included the names of two (fictional) women and two (fictional) men who were given “white-sounding” names (like Emily and Greg.)

The second company was described as a strong environmental supporter and provided statistics on the company’s carbon footprint reduction. It noted the names of four (fictional) men with white-sounding names; they had recently presented at an industry conference.

Participants in both studies were asked to evaluate the companies using a series of statements and respond on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). To measure prestige, the researchers listed nine items, including the following statements: the company is likely highly reputable; the company is likely a high-quality organization; the individuals who work at the company are likely very capable; and the individuals who work at the company are likely “best in class.”

To assess broadmindedness, the researchers listed six statements that included the following: the company likely promotes understanding among individuals; the company likely enables individuals to broaden their horizons; and the company is willing to accept a broader range of ideas.

They also threw in statements designed to disguise the focus on gender. They included such things as “this brochure looks professional” and “this brochure looks high quality.”

In both studies, the white men evaluated the white gender-diverse company as more prestigious and broadminded than the company that did not advertise its gender diversity. A review of the data from all four experiments showed the gender-diverse company using the white woman got a “medium to large” bump in reputation, though the difference was only statistically significant in three of the four studies.

The third and fourth studies looked at whether that reputational boost extended to companies that included women of color. A new set of white men were recruited to evaluate one of three different companies: a gender-diverse company featuring a white (fictional) woman employee, a gender-diverse company featuring a black (fictional) woman employee and a company that did not address its gender diversity and featured a white (fictional) male employee.

The two gender diverse companies’ brochures were identical except for the individuals’ names and, in this case, photos. The third company described itself as a top company for environment progress.

To eliminate the possibility that an individual’s perceived attractiveness would skew the answers, researchers conducted a separate study to identify pictures for the brochures of a white man, a white woman and a black woman rated equally in terms of age, attractiveness and professionalism.

Consistent with the first two studies, the gender-diverse company featuring the white woman rated “significantly more” prestigious and broadminded than the control company. The gender-diverse company with the white woman was also regarded as “significantly more” prestigious than the gender-diverse company with the black woman.

However, the gender-diverse company with the black woman did not receive any significant boost over the control company. In a follow-up to the interview, Wilton added, “A takeaway from the research should not be to not show women of color in promotional materials. Instead, we actually need more examples of women of color (and men of color and people of all demographic backgrounds) in organizations to shift perceptions, and create organizations where all people are valued.”

Wilton views this research as a “first step” in identifying how a company’s approach to gender diversity might impact its reputation. She hopes the findings give corporate leaders a reason to rethink how their perceptions about race and gender might be impacting their decision making.

“It’s important not to just talk about diversity but to create diverse environments that are truly inclusive,” she said.

Featured Faculty

  • Miguel Unzueta

    Senior Associate Dean of MBA Programs; Professor of Management and Organizations

About the Research

Wilton, L.S., Sanchez, D.T., Unzueta, M.M., Kaiser, C., & Caluori, N. (2019). In good company: When gender diversity boosts a company’s reputationPsychology of Women Quarterly, 43(1), 59–72. doi: 10.1177/0361684318800264

Related Articles