TO FIT IN OR
An Expert on Inclusion Recommends You Do Both.
She never planned to study gender diversity. In fact, Stefanie K. Johnson deliberately chose what she considered a “masculine” topic for her dissertation at Rice University— leadership in business. As a Hispanic female and first-generation college student, she hoped it would help her fit in with male colleagues.
But fit in, she did not. Her research would end up pushing her into the forefront of controversial territory. Because with every study she did on leadership, she ran into stark gender disparities—a phenomenon no one had yet explored or explained in the early 2000s. Back then, she says, the idea that diversity and inclusion was integral to business was still a fringe concept. “I couldn’t pretend the gender effect wasn’t there—it was just so blatant. I obviously have not solved it, but I am trying to find ways to make it better,” says Johnson, an associate professor of organizational leadership and information analytics at Leeds School of Business. She also holds the Andrea and Michael Leeds Research Fellowship.
And thus began a highly visible career as an authority on leadership and diversity—studying how unconscious bias affects the evaluation of leaders and how leaders can mitigate bias.
She has won multiple leadership awards, grants and fellowships; is published in 70 publications; and is a sought-after speaker who is routinely quoted in the media, including the Economist, Newsweek, Time, the Wall Street Journal, and on CNN, ABC, NBC and CNBC. She is also an esteemed member of the MG 100 Coaches and the 2020 Thinkers50 Radar List.
What really goes on at work
Johnson continues to garner attention as her research uncovers significant obstacles for women at work. A recent study revealed that sexual harassment in the workplace had declined due to increased attention from the #MeToo movement, but gender harassment in sexist work cultures was on the rise.
Last year, her paper on the “femme-fatale effect” caused a stir when it revealed that attractive businesswomen are perceived by both men and women as being less honest and more fireable (not true for attractive men).
And Johnson’s work on bringing diversity into the workplace disrupted hiring practices at both the NFL and NASA’s Hubble Telescope—virtually eliminating interviewer bias and increasing the number of diverse hires in traditionally masculine fields.
“I couldn’t pretend the gender effect wasn’t there—it was just so blatant.”
—Stefanie K. Johnson Associate Professor Leeds School of Business
Where diversity and inclusion meet
This year, she released the Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller Inclusify: How to Maximize Uniqueness and Belonging to Build More Innovative Teams. In her book, Johnson explains that humans have two basic needs: to stand out and to fit in. Companies react to those needs by creating groups where everyone fits in and no one stands out, or where everyone stands out and no one fits in. In contrast, leaders who “inclusify” encourage people to be themselves while ensuring they also feel like part of the team. “Inclusion is a complicated dynamic,” admits Johnson. “In reality, most people have to choose between standing out or fitting in; if you’re different, you can embrace that difference or play it down and assimilate.” It’s something Johnson herself struggled with her whole life. “I was always changing who I was to fit in. I didn’t feel included because I wasn’t my true self.”
When she researched inclusion years later, she discovered an essential truth. “People feel included when they feel valued for who they are. Truth is, I was never going to fit in as a man or be accepted as a man. I didn’t follow my own advice to ‘embrace your uniqueness.’”
She explains that her students have had a huge impact on her view of the world.
“I want to be an example for students who don’t always see role models who look like them. Women and women of color need to hear that their uniqueness makes them great and they should let their light shine.”
Cracking the Digital Ceiling
Walk into most tech startups and you’ll notice a lot of men. But the tech community, says Dean Sharon Matusik, is desperate to increase the number of women in its ranks.
So this fall, Leeds launched a highly selective program for exceptional women. Incoming students applied for the Business + Engineering Technology Scholars Program (BE Tech Scholars), which primes women to pursue careers at the
intersection of business, technology and engineering. Due to massive demand, the inaugural cohort was larger than anticipated—with 25 students from Leeds and 25 students from the College of Engineering and Applied Science. \
With generous support from Leeds’ partners Western Digital and Dan and Cindy Caruso, champions of the critical partnership between the business and engineering schools, scholars get cutting-edge training, hands-on experience, strategic career coaching and valuable mentorships. They also receive a $2K scholarship, a unique residential cohort experience, access to high-profile companies, intensive leadership development, and exclusive interaction with industry leaders.
“In addition to digital skills, tech experience and career strategy, women have a community of support to help them break down any barriers in their way,” says Tanya Barnett, director of BE Tech Scholars and the Office of Career Strategy at Leeds.
The program is unlike any other, says Dean Matusik. “We’re confident these women will be prepared to thrive at top tech companies.”