Race Still Influences Leadership Perceptions, Duke Research Finds

cartoon outlines of a group of people with the outline of a person in the back that has their hand raised

DURHAM, N.C. – Despite the election of a Black president and vice president in the last 15 years, and new highs for minority business ownership, associations between leadership traits and whiteness persist, new research finds.

A new paper from researchers at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center for Social Equity at Duke University finds that while the connection between race and presumed leadership has become subtler, the connection remains.

“Our findings suggested that people imagined leaders, more than non-leaders, as possessing stereotypically white attributes,” said Dr. Christopher Petsko, the paper’s lead author. “But they might be unwilling, or perhaps even unable, to explicitly report on these associations.”

The study: “Are Leaders Still Presumed White by Default? Racial Bias in Leader Categorization Revisited,” appeared in the February 2023 issue of Journal of Applied Psychology and is currently available online.

Petsko, a former postdoctoral researcher at the Cook Center who is now an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, authored the paper alongside Dr. Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a Cook Center faculty affiliate, a Senior Associate Dean, and the James L. Vincent Professor of Leadership at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

The determination and presumption of leadership qualities has outsized effects in society. A 2020 study found that 80 percent of the more than 900 most powerful people in the country—judges, executives, generals, presidents—were white, even though white individuals only constituted about 60 percent of the general population.

In 2008, Rosette was the first author on a study that suggested a connection between leader race and leadership categorization — when people imagined a leader, they thought of a person who looks and acts stereotypically white.

Subsequent research has questioned the relevance of those findings. “Although progress toward racial parity in leader positions has been made in the last fifteen years since we conducted our initial studies, this recent work showcases that the white leader prototype persists,” said Rosette.

The first part of Petsko and Rosette’s research asked participants to read a fictitious article about an interview with either a leader or an employee of a company. Participants were then asked questions including what they thought was the race of the person interviewed.

That test found no evidence that participants think of leaders as particularly white — at least not when they are asked directly.

“On the one hand, it could be the case that white-leader associations have dissipated with time,” wrote Petsko and Rosette. “On the other hand, it may be the case that — as we have been arguing — people in the U.S. continue to associate leaders with whiteness, but that they are less willing to report on these associations than they were back in 2008.”

To test this, Petsko and Rosette constructed two more experiments. In the second, one set of participants indicated which of several blurry faces looked more like a leader or more like a follower. Afterward, a different set of participants rated the same faces on how stereotypically white or Black they appeared.

Similarly, in the third experiment, one set of participants were asked to list traits that were reflective of leaders or followers. Those lists were given to a different set of participants, who rated these traits on their racial content.

Petsko and Rosette found that, when measured indirectly, racial associations with leadership remained: The composite image of a leader was rated as looking stereotypically whiter than the composite image of a follower, and leaders were described using traits that were, in turn, rated as stereotypically whiter.

These experiments did not explore the mechanism behind this lasting bias. Nor did they investigate whether individuals deliberately hid their bias when asked, or whether they were unaware of it.

However, the findings do suggest one way racial leadership disparities can persist in organizations and in society. “Given the shift from explicit to implicit detection of the white standard of leadership, it is important — now more so than ever — that leaders and managers remain vigilant in their efforts to combat the adverse consequences that can often follow this type of bias,” said Rosette.

“Without this effort and corresponding commitments to understand the underlying social contexts that allow this prototype to prevail, racial minorities will continue to be underrepresented in top leadership positions — and the racial leadership gap will endure.”

Click here to download a PDF of the full research report.

CITATION: Petsko, C. D., & Rosette, A. S. (2023). Are leaders still presumed white by default? Racial bias in leader categorization revisited. Journal of Applied Psychology, 108(2), 330–340.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0001020