Race to the top of the corporate ladder: What minorities do when they get there

Published date19 May 2009
Date19 May 2009
AuthorDevon W. Carbado,Mitu Gulati
Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati
Racing to the top of the corporate hierarchy is difficult, no matter how
qualified or capable the candidate. Producing more widgets than one’s
competitors is not enough. Negotiating the political landscape of the
institution is also required. More specifically, individual corporate officers
have to be appeased, powerful interest groups have to be co-opted and
made allies, and competitors have to be undermined or eliminated. The
more bureaucratic the organization and the more opaque the promotion
process, the more important this institutional game to climbing the
corporate ladder. This chapter identifies the kind of racial minorities or
racial types who are likely to play this game well and, consequently, race
to the top of the corporation. It then explains why these racial types might
not have the racial commitment, or feel institutionally empowered, to lift
other people of color as they climb the corporate ladder.
This chapter is a redacted version of D. Carbado and M. Gulati (2004).
Law & Economics: Toward Social Justice
Research in Law and Economics: A Journal of Policy, Volume 24, 237–270
Copyright r2009 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 0193-5895/doi:10.1108/S0193-5895(2009)0000024013
There is a widespread assumption that people of color at the top of the
corporate hierarchy will help those on the bottom. But is that assumption
reasonable? We argue that it might not be. More specifically, this chapter
suggests there is reason to believe that the racial minorities at the top of the
corporate hierarchy will neither racially reform the corporation, nor engage
in door-opening activities for minorities on the bottom.
This might seem counterintuitive, particularly given the supposed
commitment among people of color – and, in particular, among black
people – to ‘‘lift as we climb.’’
In this respect, we are not arguing that senior
people of color, in the context of the workplace, do not help junior people of
color. Surely some do, but to what extent, we do not know. This chapter
aims to explain why some people of color at the top of the corporation
might not perform this kind of anti-racist institutional work. To do so, we
first identify several benefits that theoretically should flow from having
people of color in senior management positions. Drawing on insights
from both economics and Critical Race Theory, we then discuss why
realizing these benefits might prove difficult (see Carbado & Gulati, 2003a,
pp. 1757–1828).
There are a number of benefits that one might expect to ‘‘trickle down’’ from
the presence of racial minorities at the top of a corporation to those on
the bottom. Seemingly, the very success of minorities at the top would
help negate racial stereotypes. Further, their presence would cause other
corporate leaders to monitor their discussions for bias and also make
the corporation more accountable for its decisions that implicate race.
In addition, people of color in management positions could facilitate
cooperation among racial groups within the corporation and help to reduce
token minority hiring (tokenism). Finally, senior racial minorities could
serve as role models for and provide mentoring to their junior minority
associates. Before explaining why these expectations may not be realized, we
elaborate on the nature of each benefit.
2.1. Stereotype Negation
A significant amount of discrimination today is a result of stereotypes, not
explicit and conscious animus.
Corporations seeking to improve the racial
climate of their workplace therefore might try to negate those stereotypes.
One strategy for negating minority stereotypes is to promote or hire
minorities to senior positions, the theory being that the simple fact of
minority success will undermine, if not completely disrupt, negative racial
stereotypes about work ethic and competence. If Johnny, who is black and
male, makes his way to the top of the corporate hierarchy, the theory goes,
his success sends both an individual and a group message – namely, Johnny
has the capacity and the commitment to lead a corporation and so do other
black men.
The combined effect of these messages increases the likelihood
that the corporation will promote other junior black men.
Minority success provides another, more subtle type of stereotype
negation. Many social psychologists now believe that people of color
underperform when they perceive the risk that any negative performance on
their part will confirm racial stereotypes (see generally Steele and Aronson
(1995) and Aronson, Quinn, and Spencer (1998)). The classic example is
blacks scoring poorly on standardized tests because of the concern that their
performance will confirm stereotypes about black intellectual inferiority.
Claude Steele (1997) attributes this phenomenon to ‘‘stereotype threat.’’ The
presence of successful people of color could reduce this threat in at least two
ways. First, junior people of color could conclude from the presence of
successful people of color that the corporation is racially tolerant and that
the corporate culture is not corrupted by negative racial stereotypes; there is
no ‘‘threat in the air’’ (ibid., p. 613). Second, the success of senior people
of color could suggest to the juniors that corporate leaders do not interpret
the mistakes of nonwhites as a confirmation of existing racial stereotypes.
To the extent that junior people of color respond to the success of seniors in
either or both of these ways, they will likely experience less of a stereotype
threat and greater workplace autonomy. Moreover, they are likely to
perform their jobs more effectively. In theory, the cumulative effect would
be to mitigate negative racial stereotypes.
2.2. Racial Monitoring
The presence of minorities at the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy,
even in limited numbers, produces racial monitoring.
To appreciate how,
Race to the Top of the Corporate Ladder 239

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