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Excellence Isn’t Colorblind or Gender Neutral, In Either Direction, Nor Should It Be

Nancy Cantor

As debate rages on about the forced resignation of Harvard President Dr. Claudine Gay, a familiar trope has surfaced yet again. As if to echo Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in the Harvard affirmative action case[1], many have asserted that Gay got her job because of race and gender, contrasting that with a “pure” merit-based selection of leaders. Aside from the insulting nature of this assumption, there is a stark irony to be considered here — white men have similarly gotten their positions because of race and gender for centuries, originally by law and ultimately by tradition, precedent, and, one might add, the in-group tendency to choose familiar faces (DiTomaso, 2015).[2] If, after all, our norms were to choose leaders based on some (more fictional than real) colorblind or gender-neutral metric, would the statistics on CEOs, presidents, and other leaders look as one-sided as they do today?

Dr. Nancy CantorDr. Nancy CantorIn fact, our perceptions of excellence are inextricably rooted in white male prototypes, such that we begin the evaluation of anyone else with a comparative framing defined by the divergence from this age-old norm, often seeing and hearing them against a background of difference. Yes, we are carefully listening, but implicitly we hear their words intertwined with the identity they “represent.”  Just think of the times when a forceful statement by a woman leader is emotionally framed as passionate, whereas her male counterpart is more likely to be seen as evincing strength of leadership.  Passion is actually sometimes a plus factor in leadership, but it comes with a non-normative twist when exhibited by a woman.  The late organizational theorist, Katherine Phillips succinctly captured this process when she questioned: “Why do we so passively accept homogeneity as the default norm for our institutions, when we endlessly ask for justifications of the value of diversity?”[3]

This knee-jerk normative judgment process is not only problematic and unfair to the individual leader, when as in the case of Gay, the presumption is that gender and race trumped “merit” in the selection process, but I would argue that it has broader implications as well. Namely, it leads us to ignore the fundamental value proposition of the “diversity bonus” documented by Scott Page, i.e., that diverse groups generate better, more innovative solutions to difficult problems than homogeneous groups.[4] We are so afraid to say that race and gender play a part in our evaluation that we fail to see how the lived experience of women and men of color and women in general contribute directly to the excellence of their leadership.

Clearly, there are multiple dimensions that contribute to the excellence of a leader and a scholar — and in this instance, multiple issues on the table beyond the focus of my comments here — but it is absurd to suggest that white men never benefit from the ease with which they fit the prototype and thus can be taken “at face value” as appropriate candidates for leadership to be judged on other dimensions. Even more important, it is fundamentally shortsighted to restrict our evaluations of quality and excellence to so-called colorblind and gender-neutral framings that miss the richness of intelligence honed by the lived experiences of identity — and of course, identity comes in many other forms also to be embraced as valuable to our collective power and leadership. Why don’t we test our own powers of perception and judgment to include the valuable nuances that diversity encompasses? Are we just too lazy to learn new ways of seeing merit before our very eyes?

Dr. Nancy Cantor is Chancellor and Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University-Newark. 

[1] Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 600 U.S. 181 (2023).

[2] Nancy DiTomaso, Racism and Discrimination versus Advantage and Favoritism: Bias for Versus Bias Against, Research in Organizational Behavior, 35 (2015), 57-77.

[3] Phillips, Katherine. 2017. "What is the real value of diversity in organizations? Questioning our assumptions." In The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy, by Scott Page, 223-245. Princeton: Princeton University Press and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

[4] Page, Scott. 2017. The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  

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