Conference Board Review on Prejudice and the Glass Ceiling

Our colleague Susan Webber of Aurora Advisors has a new article, “Fit vs. Fitness,” in the current issue of The Conference Board Review. The editors were initially skeptical that anything new could be said on the subject of the glass ceiling, but this article persuaded them otherwise. We hope you’ll agree. She draws on personal observations her days at Goldman, McKinsey, and Sumitomo Bank. Frank Dobbin, a Harvard professor of sociology who has investigated what diversity practices are effective in a corporate setting (and whose work in cited in the piece), commented, “A wonderful job of summarizing lots of social science research, and teasing out insights that should be useful in the workplace.”

Some excerpts:

No one would dream of calling you a bigot…..

But when you look around, your good intentions and actions have had little impact. Above a certain level in your company, the demographics haven’t changed much in the last decade. Every promotion decision, individually, seemed justified, yet the aggregates would support a charge of bias. And across corporate America, your experience has been replicated at dozens of companies.

Why does this problem persist? Why, despite all the exhortations, training programs, acknowledgment of the business case, and headline-making litigation, is it so hard to get minorities and women into executive ranks? We can talk about the usual suspects: the limitations of the talent pool or pipeline, the fact that minorities of various sorts often don’t get adequate mentoring or lack robust internal networks, that women face work/family conflicts. But these don’t completely explain the phenomenon.

I believe that prejudice is still a factor—yes, even after all these years of soul-searching and anti-discrimination workshops, even in the most enlightened corners of the country. And it’s not about only women and Hispanics and African-Americans……

[These cases point up a fundamental issue: Are companies making unduly conservative choices based on their beliefs about what makes a successful candidate, when those may not be grounded in fact?….

Columbia University professor Amar Bhide coined the phrase “novelty aversion,” to describe how investors shun ventures that are unprecedented—notably, both Federal Express and Cisco found it difficult to secure early funding. It isn’t much of a stretch to extend his logic to hiring and promotion. Both venture capitalists and corporations are in the business of picking winners—the former attractive investments, the latter talented employees…..

Consider the experience of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, the hero of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The baseball industry has always measured players’ skill and achievements by a handful of well-known statistics, but in recent years researchers have questioned the value of those traditional measures. To make the most of a limited budget, Beane used the new principles to sign low-salaried players whom his analysis showed were dramatically undervalued. The result: The team, with one of baseball’s lowest payrolls, has placed first or second in its division each of the last eight years.

Here, then, you have a business where the recruiting is unusually transparent, the basic rules have remained unchanged for decades, competitive encounters are in full view, and the incentives for success are high. This would seem to be the perfect environment for developing good decision rules, yet the entire industry was largely wrong.

The full article is here. Enjoy! If you post a comment, we’ll arrange for her to respond if appropriate.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email