The Professor Companies Call About Diversity

September 15, 2017
Professor Ashleigh Rosette

No matter who you are, Ashleigh Shelby Rosette has a way of making diversity personal.

“Most people can think of a time when they felt different. Diversity is simply differences among people,” she said. “If you can get people to recall their own feelings about being different, it can then help them to be more sensitive to other people’s feelings about diversity.  Everyone has something. So you have to figure out what their ‘something’ is. If a person can recognize their ‘something,’ then they have the ability to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. The hope then becomes that the willingness to make change then follows.”

And it can be truly anything. Rosette once gave a talk after which someone said being short made them feel different.

“His shortness was salient for him because he felt he had experienced discrimination because he was a short man,” she said. “So if he can identify with his feelings of isolation, apprehension, and awkwardness related to his shortness, then perhaps he can better understand the feelings of a gay man in the midst of straight men or a Muslim surrounded by Protestants or an older gentleman assigned to work with millennials. When talking with people who may be resistant to the general idea of diversity and inclusion, it’s easier sometimes to start with their own experiences and then move to thornier issues.”

“I’m not just a race and gender scholar, I’m a diversity scholar."

Rosette is used to people not wanting to tackle the thorny issues. Sometimes that’s just because they see diversity so narrowly.

“I’m not just a race and gender scholar, I’m a diversity scholar,” she said. “That can mean race and gender, which are the low-hanging fruit because they’re the most-studied in the various social sciences. However, it also can include sexual orientation, marital status, culture, class, age, education, place of birth, weight -- you name it.”

Rosette is a professor of management and organizations at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She also consults with companies on diversity and leadership, and has seen calls for her services increase significantly over the years.

“Some companies simply want to learn how to talk about diversity issues, whereas others want to know how to enact specific change,” she said. “My goal is to give them the language, a toolkit if you will, that helps to facilitate meaningful discussions such that multiple viewpoints are both heard and understood, or to recommend specific strategies that help their organization function better and harness the value that can come from diversity in the workplace.”

Rosette grew up in a small town in rural east Texas. She went to school for accounting, but by the time she went back for her Ph.D. – after a few years working as a CPA for Arthur Andersen – Rosette had decided her interests lie in the area of organizational behavior. At that time there were not many people studying diversity in organizations, she said.

“I saw an opportunity for me to do rigorous empirical work on understudied topics for which I had great interest and great passion, like double standards for women leaders, privilege perceptions in the work place, discrimination in organizations, and prototypes of leaders,” she said. “After studying negotiation and decision-making for three years, in the fourth year of my doctoral studies I decided to take a risk and become a diversity and leadership scholar.”

"(W)e have this expectation that our business leaders are white"

Rosette’s first research paper on diversity was on the white standard of leadership.

“It basically demonstrated that we have this expectation that our business leaders are white, and explored what happens when that expectation isn’t met,” she said.

It was 2008, the same year Barack Obama was elected president. People told Rosette her paper was not relevant because the country had a black leader.

 “Much of the feedback was not critical of the theory or of the analysis, but people doubted that the phenomenon mattered, that it was even relevant for organizational studies,” she said. “People said this was not an organizational issue, that we’re past all these racial differences, and so on.”

Her response was consistent: The election of a black president “does not change a leader prototype, nor does it single-handedly alter the long-held stereotypes about racial minorities.”

“Those reactions to my work made me more resolute in my desire to be a diversity and leadership scholar,” she said. “To push harder to understand why people reacted in these ways to the work. To understand alternative viewpoints. To better understand, dare I say it, diversity.”

Rosette is intrigued by real-world phenomena, and finding ways to study them empirically. “What drives my work is not a specific theory or a particular methodology, but the experiences of people and groups of people around me,” she said. “I am motivated by an inherent desire to understand social perceptions.”

“We took dinner-table conversation and transformed it into empirical research."

In 2012, she published research showing how black college football quarterbacks were judged as less effective leaders than their white counterparts. When their teams won, the black quarterbacks were praised for being great athletes rather than great leaders. But when their teams lost, the black quarterbacks’ athleticism was not questioned, but their leadership was.

“We took dinner-table conversation and transformed it into empirical research,” she said. “Black and white quarterbacks were talked about and evaluated differently when performing comparably. We saw it consistently in sports commentary, on television, in the newspapers, on various websites. People would talk about these differences anecdotally, even note the distinctions while watching the game but it had never been empirically demonstrated.”

Studying real-world problems is part of Rosette’s long game. Since publishing the white standard paper, her diversity and leadership research has flourished. Actual social experiences remain the impetus for much of this research. For example, her recent work on intersectionality – the study of simultaneous membership in multiple groups – grew out of conversations with women professionals about their differing work experiences. Her work on gender and negotiations, which noted that women respond differently to men than they do to other women at the bargaining table, was also born from actual experiences and exchanges.

“The first step is to identify the phenomenon, the second step is to empirically investigate it, to ascertain the process by which it occurs so that we can identify what can be done,” she said. “From that we can develop some general evidence-based practices from the work. But it all starts with the observation of a phenomenon.”

Once those best practices are identified, what’s the next step? Change the world.

“I simply want try to improve our understanding of diversity-related perceptions so that we can capitalize on the benefits of diversity,” she said. “Our organizations, our country, our world are all becoming more diverse. Let’s embrace it to enact a positive change.”