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What’s in a Face?

Physical characteristics and racial stereotypes still play a role in executive advancement.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

The Teddy Bear Effect: Does a Baby Face Benefit Black CEOs?

Robert W. Livingston and Nicholas A. Pearce

Psychological Science, forthcoming

Date Published: 
May 2009

Despite laws designed to protect employees from discrimination in the U.S., racial stereotypes and the negative effects associated with them persist in the workplace. This study examines one unfortunate phenomenon, which shows how race and a person’s facial features affect career advancement. The authors performed a series of studies to analyze the differences in facial characteristics between black and white CEOs. In one, the authors worked with a group of nonblack undergraduates who were asked to rank a set of Fortune 500 CEOs’ relative “babyfaceness,” as the authors term it — youthful features typically described as “cute” — as well as express their perception of each leader’s trustworthiness and competence. In the other study, subjects were asked to examine photographs of Fortune 500 CEOs and identify specific traits — a round face, for example — that the participants considered baby-like. The authors found that the black CEOs were likely to have babyfaced features. They theorize that these traits help mitigate negative stereotypes about “threatening” black men, and as a result have enabled those with more youthful features to advance to higher positions than those with more mature or stern-looking faces. Interestingly, the opposite was true for white male CEOs. The authors found few white babyfaced CEOs. This is consistent with past research, the authors report, which has shown that white males who look serious and express anger tend to achieve higher positions in the workplace.

Bottom Line:
Physical characteristics and racial stereotypes continue to play a role in executive advancement.

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