The Importance of Minority Leader Representation

On Lead Read Today, I write a lot about the experience of minority leaders.  But what about minority followers?  What does it mean to people to see faces that look like them in leadership positions?  And therefore, what happens when they don’t?

Minorities are often underrepresented in leadership positions.  Recently, the law firm Paul, Weiss stirred controversy when posting a picture of its new partner class.  The picture, which quickly went viral, showed an all-white and all-but-one-male new partner class.  In a law firm, the partners are the “highest up” employees so can be seen as the leaders of the organization; therefore, this picture sends a strong visual message as to who the leaders are.  Similarly, I recently wrote about LGTBQ leaders and noted that there are currently only three openly gay or lesbian Fortune 500 CEOs.  LGBTQ professionals who aspire to reach leadership positions have few role models to look to.

Why does it matter if there are minority leaders in high-powered visible leadership positions?  Research shows that there can be many positive benefits to minority followers if there are minorities in leadership positions.  Most generally: it’s empowering and important for minorities to have minority leaders to look up to.  They feel supported and understood.  If they see people that look like them in leadership positions, they believe that they too could one day be a leader.  All of this can lead to greater diversity within the organization, which can have positive benefits.

One longitudinal study looked at the effect of female politicians being elected into leadership positions[1].  They found that, over time, there was a causal effect on other women being raised to leadership positions as well.  Specifically, there was an increase in females in top and middle management positions in public organizations in municipalities where women were elected as leaders.  In other words, females entering leadership resulted in other females being raised to leadership positions – and not even in the same organization!  In general, there can be positive outcomes of minority representation in leadership.

There is a lot of interesting research looking at why this happens.  In other words, why do minority followers thrive so well under minority leaders?  It may be partly a psychological effect; these followers psychologically feel empowered and more confident because they feel as though they are being represented by their leaders.  One study asked women to give speeches and were randomly assigned to subtly be exposed to either pictures of powerful women (e.g., Hillary Clinton) or powerful men (e.g., Bill Clinton)[2].  In this study, women gave longer speeches that were perceived by others as better when they saw the powerful women rather than the powerful men; just seeing a successful female leader was enough to make them perform better.  On the other hand, the reason why this happens might be because minority followers can model themselves after minority leaders.  One study found that women mimicked the body posture and language of female leaders, leading to them feeling more empowered and performing better[3].

I want to point out that although I am framing this argument as a “win” for minority followers, this is not just about helping minorities alone.  As I have previously written about, diversity and inclusion in the workplace are good business for everyone, not just for minorities.  When minorities are represented in leadership, minority followers flourish – and so does everyone else.

[1] Arvate, P. R., Galilea, G. W., & Todescat, I. (2018).  The queen bee: A myth?  The effect of top-level female leadership on subordinate females.  The Leadership Quarterly, 29, 533 – 548.

[2] Latu, I. O., Mast, M. S., Lammers, J., & Bombari, D. (2013).  Successful female leaders empower women’s behaviors in leadership tasks.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 444 – 448.

[3] Latu, I. M., Mast, M. S., Bombari, D., Lammers, J., & Hoyt, C. L. (2019).  Empowering mimicry: Female leader role models empower women in leadership tasks through body posture mimicry.  Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 80, 11 – 24.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.