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Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs

Subconscious fears of “aggressiveness” put black people at a disadvantage in business, claims research from Kellogg

By  Ania Zymelka

Sat Jul 18 2009

Black males’ career prospects improve if they are “baby-faced”, according to a recent paper by Professor Robert Livingston, Assistant Professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
“My research was inspired by a simple question: why are there still disproportionately less black people in high positions?” says the author.
To find an explanation, Livingston looked at how successful black CEOs are perceived by non-black Americans. “The idea was that if we found out what characterizes black people who did manage to get into leadership roles, we could draw conclusions about why they are still under-represented in high positions.” 
 Kellogg School of Management's Robert Livingston
Livingston showed 106 non-black male and female students pictures of black business leaders running companies of different sizes. He then asked the students to what extent they thought the people in the pictures looked like good leaders and successful businessmen; without, of course, giving away their identity.
Livingston's results were startling: participants correctly associated the faces of black CEOs with success. In addition, all the portraits were perceived as having “baby-type” features such as bigger eyes, a small mouth and chubby “cherub-cheeks”.
The more “baby-faced” a black American CEO looked, the more prestigious was the company he led. As Livingston explains: “We naturally associate a person who has a baby-type face with calmness, warmth and innocence, and this seems to balance out the negative stereotypes of black aggressiveness that most non-black Americans would normally have.”
What the research fails to do, however, is back up the results with a control group of photos of randomly chosen black males. Without this, it remains possible that participants generally associate black faces with baby-face features, rather than it having to do with the success of the CEOs.
Livingston argues that previous research has clearly established that there is no difference between how “baby-faced” black and non-black people are, and that he didn’t need to prove the point again.
Previous research, however, relied on objective similarities in facial anatomy, whereas Livingston's study is based on people's subjective perception of what "baby-faced" features are.
Another criticism of the research is that participants may have altered their responses with an eye to political correctness. Confronted with the task of evaluating black and white faces in terms of warmth and aggressiveness, they may have steered away from associating a black person with coldness and violent behavior.
Dr. Stuart Gibson, a forensic scientist at Kent University in the UK who has also researched this area, defends Livingston’s results: “He shows that there is a positive correlation between facial characteristics and success in business: the more baby-faced a person is, the higher is also his perceived leadership potential.”
Gibson’s main reservation is that the research does not offer insights into the reasons for the phenomenon: whether “baby-face” features are a positive attribute because they cancel out stereotypical black aggressiveness is, according to the scientist, debatable.
Other minorities
Gibson recently conducted a study about the facial characteristics of white men and women. The results of his research, co-authored with Professor Christopher Solomon, show that for white male leaders a strong jaw-line and other “masculine” features are positive leadership attributes - the opposite of what holds for black leaders, according to Livingston's study.
Livingston draws far-reaching conclusions from his findings: black Americans, he argues, are not the only minority that suffers subconscious prejudices at work: “Asians in the UK, Turks in Germany and women all over the world share the same fate,” he says. If you do not happen to be a white, middle-class male your chances of reaching higher positions are likely to be compromised by how other people categorize you subconsciously. “All minorities need to make up for this perceived lack”, says Livingston.
So what if you happen to be a black American male without a baby-face? There are strategies that members of minorities can adopt in order to fit in. For black men, Livingston found that having a gentler leadership style and speaking softly could help to alleviate fears of aggressiveness.
He compares Obama's leadership style with that of George W. Bush: “Barack speaks 'proper English', is Harvard educated and has a very soft approach to politics and people. Bush, on the other hand, could get away with his aggressive, in-your-face leadership.”
Indeed having soft facial features as a white man can hinder career chances: baby-faced-ness is not only associated with innocence and warmth, but also with a lack of experience and incompetence. And since white males are not perceived as inherently aggressive, a baby-face has a negative effect on their perceived leadership abilities.
This result is reinforced by the research carried out at Kent University. Livingston's research shows that far fewer white leaders have baby-type features than successful black Americans.
“What this basically means is that some people are still not regarded as properly belonging or deserving to be in leadership roles,” says Livingston. “My hope… is that the more members of minorities enter high positions, the less these stereotypes will affect people's superficial image of them.”