Profiling Leaders: Tall, White & Male

When you think of a leader, how often do you conjure up the image of a woman or person of color?

Today there are a number of famous women and minorities in positions of power: Mary Barra of General Motors, Meg Whitman of HP, Satya Nadella of Microsoft and President Barack Obama to name but a few.

But they are vastly under represented by a long shot.

In the U.S. women currently represent about half the population and minorities make up 37.4%, when you subtract the white, non-Hispanic or Latino population. In spite of this, leaders in business and politics are hugely over-represented by white males.

As of 2013, women led just 4% of Fortune 500 companies and African Americans led only 1%. Though blacks, Hispanics and American Indians represent about 30% of the overall population, they hold only 3% of senior management positions at American corporations and nonprofits.

Educated like Leaders
According the Pew Research Center, women have been earning college degrees at a greater rate than men since the early 1980s and they currently earn about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees. Racial minorities represent almost a third of all bachelor’s degrees.

The Council of Graduate Schools 2013 report stated that the same held true for Master’s degrees as women are earning advanced degrees by a larger margin than men in every field other than engineering, mathematics and computer science, and physical and earth sciences. Women earn advanced degrees in business at a rate of 53% versus 47% for men.

Look like Leaders
The Economist magazine recently wrote that getting to the top has as much to do with how you look as what you achieve. Despite this supposed age of diversity, we are still led primarily by white men. In fact, our leaders are not only likely to be white and male, but also tall, relatively fit, have a deeper voice and good posture.

In his best-selling book “Blink,” author Malcolm Gladwell found that 30% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are 6 fee 2 inches or taller, even though this represents only 3.9% of the population of American men.

Overweight people are often judged incapable of controlling themselves, and this reflects poorly on their potential to control others.

Sound like Leaders
Quantified Communications discovered that when people were asked to evaluate speeches delivered by 120 executives, voice quality accounted for 23% of listener’s evaluations while content of the speech only accounted for 11%. (It’s not what you say, but how you sound when you say it that matters.) Another study found that male leaders with the deepest voices earned $187,000 a year more than the average.

Diversity in Leaders
Some suggest “covering,” which is a term proposed by sociologist Erving Goffman, that basically describes the process of downplaying aspects of one’s identity. Examples might be a black person who refrains from associating with African-American colleagues, or a woman who shies away from discussing her role as a mother. This seems to suggest you should lead by what others want you to be rather than who you are.

As much as we want a diverse workforce, a diverse board of directors, a diverse executive management team, it seems we are still a long way from realizing a diversity of leaders at the very top.

The Economist article posits that given the number of qualified candidates, selection committees simply end up choosing leaders who look most like themselves. This results in tokenism rather than genuine equalizing of opportunity.

I’m not suggesting women and minorities necessarily make better leaders than white men. However, unless we are wiling to empower them with the same opportunities to lead us, we will limit our options to find exceptional leaders.

Though there are fine examples of women and minorities rising to leadership positions today, they are vastly under represented in both business and politics. Until we judge our potential leaders based on the content of their character and competence rather than the color of their skin and makeup of their gender, we will continue to miss out on realizing our full potential for creative solutions to the challenges we face.

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