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Think of a typical British broadsheet newspaper editor and who do you think of? If he looks like a white, public-school educated Oxbridge chap you would be about right. Until last week there weren’t any non-white editors of UK broadsheets, and only 5% of the editors of UK national dailies are women (Sex and Power, 2013). So congratulations to the Independent newspaper, which has just become the first paper in the UK ever to appoint a non-white editor, Kolkata-born Amol Rajan. Or at least this is what was posted on Twitter and in the media in recent weeks.

But after reading about Rajan, I stumbled across a blog on the Prospect magazine website, which claims that the UK’s first non-white national newspaper editor was actually appointed one hundred years ago. Oh, and she was also a woman. Between 1894 and 1902, Mumbai-born Rachel Sassoon Beer edited the Sunday Times and the Observer. You can read her fascinating story here.

In the macho world of the news industry, neither Amal Rajan nor Rachel Sassoon Beer would be the kind of ‘chap’ many of us might imagine would lead the editorial team of a daily broadsheet newspaper. A series of research studies from the US investigated what kind of person we bring to mind when we think of a business leader. It found that we all carry around unconscious perceptions, or cognitive prototypes, about what a leader should be like. When we come across a leader an unconscious evaluation is made according to how closely the person matches the prototype. And guess what? In a US research study, (Sy et al 2010) most people’s prototypes were that business leaders were white. And this was regardless of the ethnic mix of the organization or the industry. Furthermore, leadership prototype research hasn’t even got around to investigating whether we tend to think of business leaders as being men rather than women.

There’s nothing wrong with appointing white men to leadership roles, of course, just so long as women and ethnic minorities have fair access and encouragement to apply for the same opportunities. Those who are coaching, developing, and appointing future leaders need to become aware of their own unconscious leadership prototypes and biases. By becoming editor of the Independent, Amol Rajan has both landed himself a top job, and may possibly have broadened our perceptions of what leaders in the newspaper industry look like.

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