Katherine Giscombe

Building Trust Between Managers and Diverse Women Direct Reports

Four noteworthy elements that HR managers at CPA firms can’t miss.

June 16, 2011
by Katherine Giscombe, PhD

Organization-wide efforts are needed to overcome barriers to building trust in relationships between white male managers and diverse women direct reports, according to Catalyst’s new study, Building Trust Between Managers and Diverse Women Direct Reports. The report explores the level of trust between diverse women, defined as those belonging to racial minority groups in North America and white-male managers, the focus of the analysis because of their prevalence and power in corporate hierarchies. As prior Catalyst work has shown that businesses have made greater progress in creating inclusion for white women than for diverse women, this study uses white women as a comparison group for diverse women.

Trust between managers and direct reports is essential to forming productive working relationships, facilitating employee engagement, navigating the workplace and improving overall performance across the organization. Diverse women often face greater challenges than white women in forming trusting relationships with their managers. Among other factors, negative stereotyping and exclusion from influential networks can affect the ways in which diverse women experience workplaces and can limit diverse women’s access to trusting relationships.

The report examines two dimensions of trust:

  • Reliance: The direct report’s ability to rely on her manager to take action on her behalf. Reliance reflects observable actions, managers take, on behalf of their direct reports and indicates that managers are fulfilling their role of supporting employees on the job.
  • Disclosure: When a direct report communicates sensitive or personal information to her manager. This involves some risk, including, for example, a direct report’s willingness to admit to shortcomings or to share honest feelings and frustrations about work.

The analyses found:

  1. Reliance for diverse women and white women is similar. In fact, Catalyst found no differences between diverse women’s perception of reliance on their managers and white women’s perception of reliance on their managers. However, diverse women’s perception of their ability to rely on their managers made no difference in their satisfaction regarding career advancement opportunities, while for white women it did. Indeed, the more highly a white woman relied on her manager to take action on her behalf, the more likely she was to feel satisfied with her career advancement opportunities. In contrast, diverse women’s perception of their ability to rely on their managers made no difference to their satisfaction regarding career advancement opportunities. This may be because diverse women experience the work environment as more exclusive than white women do. They are more likely to perceive racism, sexism, double standards and negative stereotyping as part of the fabric of the organization.
  2. Diverse women’s disclosure with their white-male managers is lower than white women’s. Specifically, diverse women direct reports rated their level of disclosure, or sharing of sensitive information with their white male managers, as significantly lower than did white women. When diverse women perceive a lack of disclosure on their managers’ part, for example in managers’ reluctance to provide feedback, this presents obstacles to career development. Such lack of disclosure may be related to negative stereotyping in exclusionary workplaces.
  3. White male managers may overestimate the level of trust in relationships with diverse women direct reports. Many white-male managers appear to be unaware that their diverse women direct reports do not trust them. In particular, a white male manager is likely to overestimate his diverse women direct reports’ level of trust, much more so than in relationships with white women direct reports. In a higher proportion of cases — more than half (54.2%) of the relationships involving diverse women versus less than one in five (17.2%) for white women – white-male managers rated their direct reports' level of disclosure higher than how the diverse women direct reports themselves rated their own level of disclosure. This finding suggests that managers may not receive “early warning signs” when their diverse women direct reports are dissatisfied and considering leaving the organization.
  4. Organization-wide efforts are essential in overcoming barriers to building trust in relationships between white male managers and diverse women direct reports. Barriers diverse women must overcome in building trusting relationships with their managers may include perceptions of negative stereotyping or double standards. This may stem from lack of access to mentors and powerful networks, lack of high-visibility assignments or perceived unfair career advancement processes.


While everyone, from the human resources staff to managers at all levels to individuals themselves, has the power to influence the environment, Catalyst recommends that senior organizational leaders, in particular, take responsibility for creating more inclusive environments by:

  • Implementing career-monitoring programs;
  • Integrating diversity considerations into talent management processes; and
  • Incorporating greater accountability into their organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
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Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is vice president, Diverse Women & Inclusion Research, leads the Catalyst initiative to address the specific challenges faced by diverse women around the world. These include, among other groups, women of color and Canada's "visible minorities," a legal term for specific underrepresented groups in Canadian corporations.

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit membership organization working globally with businesses and the professions to build inclusive workplaces and expand opportunities for women and business. Visit www.catalyst.org to learn more about our work and download Catalyst reports. Visit http://www.catalyst.org/page/82/catalyst-e-newsletters to begin receiving Catalyst C-News, our monthly e-newsletter.