Most Fortune 500 CEOs—roughly 95 percent of them, in fact—are white men. Line up headshots of these leaders and plenty of pronounced chins, square jaws, salt-and-pepper hair, and other physical features suggesting maturity, masculinity, and gravitas are also readily apparent.

But for the handful of African-American CEOs at Fortune 500 firms, portraits reveal something very different in play, says social psychologist Robert Livingston, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School. His research found that black CEOs often have so-called baby faces: large foreheads, big eyes, chubby cheeks, and button noses—features that call to mind Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, the diminutive African-American stars of 1980s sitcoms. “There is a leadership advantage for black male leaders who appear more docile in physical appearance,” Livingston says. He calls this advantage the “Teddy Bear Effect.”

“Because black males are perceived as being hostile, aggressive, dangerous, hyper-masculine, and a threat, broadly construed, to white-male power,” Livingston explains, those with non-threatening facial features are more likely to climb the corporate ladder. In fact, he found that the more cherubic a black CEO’s face, the higher his salary—and even his company’s revenues.

Livingston’s work builds on results from more than 40 years of research by multiple scholars on the appeal of “babyfacedness”; data show that humans often respond positively to the high face-width-to-height ratio that characterizes the young of many species. His own data, first published in 2009 when he was at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, reveal that although a baby face helps an African-American leader advance, chubby cheeks do not offer the same benefits to white male CEOs. Instead, “there was a negative correlation between babyfacedness and the size of the company and the amount of their bonuses and salary.”

The impact of a baby face was even more severe for white women. “It was a huge liability for women, the strongest effect size we obtained,” Livingston says. Even though women in the general population are more likely than men to have “neotonous” or rounded, child-like features, “women CEOs were much less baby-faced than either black male or white male CEOs,” Livingston explains. “Women are already ‘disarmed’ by virtue of their gender,” Livingston says. “What they need is to be ‘armed’ with physical features that signal competence and ability, rather than warmth and communality, which is already conveyed by their gender.” (With no black female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies at the time of his study, he could not study the effect of their features.)

A baby face is just one of an array of so-called “disarming mechanisms” that aid black leaders in appearing “less threatening and more palatable,” Livingston reports. These include wearing glasses to appear studious, smiling frequently, and speaking softly. “We’re wired to judge people very, very quickly,” he points out, “and people utilize physical appearance very heavily to form social judgments.”

He says some people misunderstand the aim of his research; he doesn’t suggest that African Americans undergo plastic surgery to look more baby-faced, or wear glasses if they have 20/20 vision, or make an effort to speak softly. He’s not warning mature-looking black men away from C-suite roles. “I think we should focus on dismantling the hierarchical structures and systems that keep people out and produce phenomena like the Teddy Bear Effect,” he explains. “I want people to realize that we don’t live in a meritocracy, that we are judged by different standards. A quality that could be an asset in one group could be a liability in another.” And because people make many choices and decisions “outside of awareness, intent, or control,” prompted by cues they often don’t notice consciously, Livingston says it might be helpful to change hiring and promotion practices to avoid such blind spots involving physical appearance.

He warns that many recommendations can seem “facile,” given these complex problems, but notes that some studies show benefits to masking an applicant’s identity during the hiring process. “There’s research that shows that people named Jamal or Lakeisha get fewer callbacks than people named Greg or Becky,” he says, which could be addressed, for example, by removing nonessential information such as job candidates’ names or addresses from dossiers.

He also suggests assembling diverse hiring committees: “Make sure that you don’t have groupthink.” Companies might consider introducing additional metrics for assessing job candidates as well, such as their skill in handling diversity issues in their former jobs. “That way,” he says, “you get away from physical appearance altogether. Hiring should be based on whether the candidate has done something that the company or society sees as important.”

Livingston’s distinct findings for white men, white women, and black men in the Teddy Bear Effect study led directly to his current research on the heterogeneous nature of social disadvantage. The data, he says, reveal nuanced differences in the way these groups are perceived: “black men are stigmatized” or regarded as conspicuous in a negative way; “white women are subordinated” or seen in a positive light “as long as they maintain their subordinate position in society”; and “black women are marginalized,” seen as neutral but irrelevant. These nuances are important, but largely unnoticed, he emphasizes. “We know that black men, black women, and white women are all socially disadvantaged, but my research is looking at how those disadvantages are different,” he says. One of his goals is to help organizations understand that people from diverse backgrounds might experience distinct and even opposing challenges, he explains. “One size does not fit all.”

By Erin O'Donnell from Harvard Magazine
January-February 2019

Photo: Tom Fitzsimmons