An Investigation of Racial Bias When Choosing Leaders

2 female employees
Topic(s): diversity, fairness, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2008)

Article: The white standard: Racial bias in leader categorization
Authors: A.S. Rosette, G.J. Leonardelli, K.W. Phillips
Reviewed by: Katie Bachman

Recent research (Rosette, Leonardelli, & Phillips, 2008) investigated racism in the upper echelons of business. The authors examined one possible reason that non-White employees don’t make it into leadership positions. Their argument revolves around the idea of prototyping—interpreting something based on a predetermined model.

The authors claim that the reason Whites appear prominently in leadership roles and are given higher performance ratings in those positions when compared to non-White groups is because people generally imagine leaders to be White and are therefore more likely to attribute positive leadership characteristics to Whites.


The researchers conducted four experimental studies which manipulated the type of company that the leader was in charge of, whether the person was a leader or an employee, the demographic break-down of the company that the person was in (i.e. 50% White versus 20% White), and the specific race of a Non-White leader (i.e. Asian versus Hispanic versus African-American).

Throughout the four studies, leaders were more likely to be assumed to be White, even if Whites made up only 20% of the company and performance was rated higher for leaders with “White sounding” names than for “African-American sounding” names.


Prototypes do not necessarily imply racism, so typical diversity training techniques may not work here. While most people will claim to be colorblind when it comes to hiring and promotion, it’s important for leaders and organizations to be aware of any possible personal biases and account for them.

Rosette, A. S., Leonardelli, G. J., & Phillips, K. W. (2008). The white standard: Racial bias in leader categorization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(4), 758-777.