Stereotypes, Prototypes and Superheroes

Last week I took my family to see The Black Panther, Marvel’s latest superhero film. I’m not sure that I am the core target audience for the film, but nonetheless I enjoyed myself, as did my wife and daughters. If you haven’t seen it, the film tells the story of T’Challa, Kng of Wakanda, and his battle to save his nation from attack. His powers as the Black Panther – gained through a rare mineral in the ground of Wakanda – enable him to lead the country to safety.

I was amazed to hear that the film is Marvel’s 18th superhero film. Just as surprising is that this is the first superhero film with a black lead protagonist. I was struck by the comments of a black female reviewer who revealed that she finally had a brief glimpse of what it must be like for white cinema goers when they go to see a film with a white lead, white cast and – typically – black villain.

One of the most revealing chapters in Binna Kandola’s new book: Racism at Work – The Danger of Indifference focuses on race and leadership. The story of the Black Panther seems to illustrate well some of the significant, yet often overlooked challenges that organisations face when it comes to race and leadership.

While we actively and publicly seek to address gender imbalance, a similar problem with leadership persists yet is less noticed. Minorities are grossly under-represented in leadership positions. Only 4% of CEOs in the FTSE 100 are minority ethnic, despite the BAME community of the UK making up 14% of the working population. And only 11% of CEOs in the US top 100 companies are people of colour (Diverse Magazine, 2017). As of last month, there were four (yes, four) black CEOs of Fortune 500 businesses but, with Ken Chenault stepping down as the CEO of American Express, that number has fallen by 25% (money.cnn.com, 2017). According to CNN, three black CEOs is ‘particularly staggering’, asking what impact this will have on the pipeline of future generations of black and minority leaders.

Clearly there are a wide range of social and political factors influencing the situation, but what are the key psychological factors? Here are just a few that you might want to consider:

1.Our images and expectations govern our judgements and decisions of who is likely to be a leader and, likewise, who is not. Beyond everyday racial stereotypes, we all have a picture in our head of what a leader is – known as ‘leadership prototypes’ – and these shape our views of how a leader should act and how they should look. Recent research examining the role of leadership prototypes and race has consistently found a pro-white bias, among white and minority participants.

2.Role models shape prototypes. A pro-white bias will have an impact on minorities and their self-perception as a leader, reducing awareness of leadership qualities and increasing the likelihood of not contending for leadership positions.

3.Networks matter. The way that we socialise in organisations – the people we spend time with – will influence the way that performance is evaluated and will determine opportunities to progress. Being in a dominant network typically brings the advantages of being more likely to be nominated for a leadership role, being supported by ‘significant others’ in the organisation and having access to more information about forthcoming opportunities.

These are just three of many influences – subconscious or unconscious – that shape our beliefs about leaders. Until we begin to openly discuss and become consciously more alert to these, then leadership pipelines will struggle with fair minority representation and organisations will continue to feel frustrated by the inequalities in leadership.

Finally, if we rely on time being the cure all to the problem, think again. The film Black Panther took 52 years to get the story to screen. Yes, 52 years. That’s despite attempts in the 90’s to make the film. Why did it take so long? Who knows, but what we do know is that time doesn’t make a film. The actors, directors, crews and producers make it – with vision, tenacity and a lot of conscious effort – which are precisely the qualities that will be needed to achieve race equality in organisational leadership.

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