Are Leaders Still Presumed White by Default? Racial Bias in Leader Categorization Revisited

leaders standing in front of table of people pointing to report

About the report

In the United States, leaders of the highest valued companies, best-ranked universities, and most-consumed media outlets are more likely to be White than what would be expected based on White people’s representation in the U.S. population. One explanation for this racial gap is that U.S. respondents’ prototype of a leader is White by default—which is, in turn, what causes White (vs. non-White) people to be promoted up the organizational ladder more quickly. Although this explanation has empirical support, its central premise was recently challenged by experimental evidence documenting that U.S. respondents no longer associate leaders, more than nonleaders, with being White.

To reconcile these contradictory findings, we conducted three preregistered experiments (N = 1,316) on the topic of whether leaders, more than nonleaders, continue to be associated with Whiteness (i.e., being categorized as White or being represented with stereotypically White qualities). Results suggest that associations between leaders and Whiteness hold up to scrutiny, but that detecting them may depend on what methods researchers employ. In particular, when researchers use direct methods of detecting racial assumptions (e.g., self-report measures), there appears to be no evidence of an association between leaders and Whiteness (Experiment 1).

Yet, when researchers use more indirect methods of detecting racial assumptions (e.g., a Princeton trilogy task), an association between leaders and Whiteness readily emerges (Experiments 2 and 3). In short, although respondents refrain from freely expressing associations they may harbor between leaders and Whiteness, these associations do not appear to have dissipated with time.