Wharton scholar talks workplace diversity

Stephanie Creary of the Department of Management studies diversity, identity, and organizational practices.

Stephanie Creary of Wharton poses along a railing in Steinberg Hall-Dietrich Hall.
Wharton’s Stephanie Creary. (Image: Eric Sucar)

Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School, is an identity and diversity scholar, and field researcher interested in answering questions related to how people manage their multiple identities at work, and how that affects their employment, careers, and workplace relationships. 

“I’m also interested in organizational practices that facilitate or inhibit people from managing their multiple identities in the ways that they desire,” she says.

Creary, a founding faculty member of the Wharton IDEAS Lab, an affiliated faculty member of Wharton People Analytics, and a senior fellow of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, says she became interested in diversity research through personal experiences. 

While working as a speech language-pathologist at a hospital in her hometown of Las Vegas in her mid-20s, she encountered multiple instances of bias related to her racial and gender identities that she did not understand at the time, such as older white male patients asking to be seen by a non-black therapist, routinely being mistaken for the janitorial staff, and, most astoundingly, discovering that a part-time male employee was offered $5 more an hour than she was making because, she was told, he had a family to support.

“That was my impetus for understanding whether and how identity predicts people’s career success,” Creary says. “We carry with us in America this notion of meritocracy, that if you work hard, you will be successful. However, I had the experience that even though I was working really hard, people were telling me that I was not as worthy as other people. To me, that didn’t sound like a meritocracy.”

Penn Today sat down with Creary in Steinberg Hall-Dietrich Hall to discuss diversity; understanding and appreciating differences; having multiple identities; bringing your whole self to work; code-switching; and defining professionalism in 2019.

You are a scholar of diversity. How do you define diversity?

I look at diversity in a couple of different ways. One is through the lens of difference, and I believe that it’s important to explore those, which is counter-normative to the way many of us were raised in the U.S., or taught to value in the corporate setting. Many of us were actually taught to downplay our differences. I address the opposite perspective in my research. What happens when we actually disclose our differences? To what end? Diversity for the sake of what? For me, there’s always a case to be made around equity and social justice that holds true to my roots as the former president of the black student union in college. I believe fundamentally in the value of understanding differences because once we do that, we can begin to understand how the different opportunities that people have had—those who’ve been privileged and those who’ve been disadvantaged in some way—relate to their success.

What is the value in understanding differences?

I think that sharing more of themselves can help some people feel more comfortable and confident at work. It can help to strengthen their relationships by helping people to get to know each other better and become closer. To the extent that discussing differences is tied to the work that we do, it can help us to be more creative at work. The more that we can harness the different aspects of ourselves to produce new knowledge, the more we can help our organizations learn and grow. However, the broader social context is also important. If the organizational message is that we should ignore or downplay our differences, then it is unlikely that any of these positive outcomes can be achieved. 

Is there an implicit racial aspect of diversity? Some time ago I wrote a story about racial diversity in Philadelphia newsrooms and a prominent editor justified their lack of racial diversity by saying they had diversity of thought.

I’m a both/and person. One of the ways to think about diversity is through an equity or social justice lens. Two of the most common dimensions of difference that people talk about in the U.S. are race and gender, which invites deeper conversation about fairness and the systemic racism and sexism that has allowed some people to be successful and others not. However, this conversation does not always resonate with people who are in the majority. 

There are certainly people in the majority who are champions for equity—gender equity and racial equity—and then there are those who are not, because they feel that this conversation might conflict with their cultural values around meritocracy. They claim, ‘Really, truly, we are a meritocratic organization, everybody does have the opportunity to be successful if they work hard enough. I don’t understand why diversity is important.’ So, a conversation around diversity of thought might be more appealing. They say, ‘I can be a champion of diversity if I can understand how it makes us perform better as an organization.’ 

This diversity-of-thought conversation can be summarized as, ‘We all are different. Each one of us, no matter what your skin color is, your gender is, your sexual orientation is. Whether you grew up in Japan or the U.S., we all bring with us a perspective and a difference of opinion, and when we harness all of that together, we can be better, we can function better, and we can be more creative and innovative, and produce more as an organization.’ The challenge is when the equity and the diversity-of-thought conversations become divorced because we don’t feel like we can talk about the hard stuff, which is equity, and we only want to talk about the easier stuff, which is diversity of thought. My research tries to bring these two perspectives together, to address what I refer to as the ‘both/and.’ I argue that it is in talking about equity and fairness, and addressing the inequity in our organizations, that actually enables us to have diverse perspectives in the room to share that can then help organizations be more forward-thinking, more creative, and more innovative. 

Do you think it’s possible to have diversity without racial diversity?

This is one of those questions that makes me feel compelled to address both my desire as a human and my orientation as a scholar. I can’t ignore the fact that I am a black woman, and I don’t want to because my perspective and the way that I entered this diversity conversation was through the lens of racial diversity, and my experiences with it. I, personally, would have a hard time continuing to research and talk about diversity and inclusion if race was not part of the conversation. For me, the degree of openness to discussing race helps me to assess the inclusiveness of an organizational climate. It helps me to understand whether equity is a taboo subject, or whether the perspective is that equity is fine to talk about as long as we don’t talk about race. At the same time, I teach a class here at the Wharton School called ‘Leading Diversity in Organizations.’ My syllabus says, ‘This class takes a broad-based approach to talking about diversity and inclusion.’ There are many different ways in which we talk about diversity, which is really important to helping our students learn and grow personally and academically. There are many different demographic categories and social identities that students want to discuss. Also, we don’t only talk about how diversity affects a person. We also talk about how it affects an organization. 

I like to teach that class because I love hearing students compare racism in the U.S. to social class issues in Singapore, and relate all of these concerns to broader issues of marginalization in society. For me, the race conversation invites students from the U.S. to talk about marginality, and it invites international students to talk about the marginalized groups in their countries, and whether or not they have the same opportunity to be successful as those who are not marginalized. Conversations about race, though hard, keep us honest. Through them, we learn that we cannot have a conversation about creativity, innovation, and diversity of thought if we’re not being honest with ourselves about system issues that limit that. 

What are negative aspects of workplaces without diversity?

Typically, too much consensus and groupthink, an unwillingness to tackle the hard stuff, everybody just saying, ‘Yes, that looks right.’ Then before you know it, someone has out-competed your organization because they were willing to challenge the status quo. There is something to be said about acknowledging that when we have different people in a room, we can have access to different ideas. However, we need integrating mechanisms. Students’ experiences at Wharton and Penn come up a lot in my class. They say, ‘Sure, Wharton or Penn is diverse, but people aren’t trying to hear each other’s perspectives or learn about their differences, and they’re not trying to take those different perspectives and actually change policies, practices, and create new things. Diversity for the sake of the diversity isn’t enough.’ So, the conversation now is also about inclusion, which can include creating fair practices, integrating differences, and including different voices in decision-making processes—which all challenge us to do things differently. 

Part of your scholarship involves studying how people manage their multiple identities at work. What do you mean by multiple identities?

When I first started doing this research around 13 years ago, people were confusing multiple identities with the concept of multiple personalities. Multiple identities refer to the different ways that we define who we are. That could be according to our demographic identities, which are often referred to as our non-work identities. Our multiple identities can also include our work or professional identities—being a professor, being a journalist, being a photographer. For some people, the ability to bring your whole self or more of your multiple identities to work is very important. For some people, this means being able to talk about their demographic identities, their background, and other things that have made them who they are at work. The motivation for many is to feel like a consistent, coherent person at work. Others fundamentally believe that sharing more of themselves at work matters to the work that they do and the people who they work with.

Why do people feel that they need multiple identities?

Well, everyone has multiple identities, they just manage them in different ways. Some people feel motivated to connect who they are to the types of decisions that they make. I would say for many of my students—who love this conversation about multiple identities, which has become part of their everyday language—there is a need to feel authentic at work. They do not want to hide aspects of themselves that they feel are fundamentally related to the choices that they’ve made around their careers, and how they want to engage in the workplace. 

I presume that some people feel like they need to hide a part of themselves in order to be professional?

Yes. I think the reality is there are pressures in organizations to ‘be professional,’ but what does ‘be professional’ mean? This is culturally contingent. Whose cultural norms should we observe when we’re trying to be professional? Many people who come from underrepresented groups don’t feel that they can adequately conform to norms of being professional in a corporate culture, particularly when those norms relate to their hairstyles or other cultural practices. So how can they feel like they’re not sacrificing important parts of themselves? I think the standards are changing in terms of who people think they should be able to be at work, especially for the younger generations entering the workforce now.

Where do you think that change comes from?

Certainly, social media has a lot to do with it. People have access to many modes of self-expression, and younger people especially have gotten used to sharing a lot about themselves outside of the workplace. To them, it seems natural to continue doing that at work. I have students who will say things like, ‘I find it hard to be on a team with people unless they tell me everything about themselves.’ And I say, ‘I get it, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily a realistic expectation.’ I think many people who have been working full-time for many years are not accustomed to this. They didn’t have an Instagram culture or a Facebook culture. They were socialized to keep their personal and work lives separate. This narrative of bringing your whole self to work can be threatening to those who did not enter the workplace at a time when sharing more of themselves at work was valued. It was actually frowned upon, and they were discouraged and oftentimes penalized for doing this. So, there can be a lot of skepticism around this topic. 

Among people of color, there a phenomenon known as code-switching. Is that similar to multiple identities?

Code-switching becomes a tactic for people who operate in more than one world, including people of color and people who grew up in one country but work or go to school in a different country. How do they effectively navigate these different worlds? Is it by assimilating and adopting the norms and the customs of the context that they enter into, while leaving another culture behind? That’s one strategy: segment who you are, and just show the workplace the work self that they want to see. But research shows that this can be exhausting over time, so some people don’t like to keep switching back and forth if they don’t have to. For others, their strategy for managing multiple identities is one of integration. Not separating, but continuing to bring in, in every scenario they enter into, the same person. The need to have a sense of continuity is really important to them. 

What aspects of bringing their whole self to work are new entrants looking for?

Some of it is about personalization of space. Think about how many of us decorate our offices. You might see a couple of family pictures. But new entrants might say something like, ‘I like bright colors and I’m a creative type, and I like to have different types of artifacts and objects on my desk.’ Allowing them to bring more of themselves to work would entail allowing them to personalize their workspaces in ways that felt authentic, and beyond corporate beige. Another example relates to rethinking what people should wear and allowable hairstyles in the workplace. There has been a fascinating conversation around what is professional attire.

That seems to be something you see more and more with African-American women in particular who would like to wear their hair naturally.

Yes. Many of us decided to start wearing our hair naturally because we wanted to. But it also helps that we have very prominent celebrities and successful businesswomen who wear their hair naturally as well. Carla Harris was just here [recently]. She is vice chair of wealth management at Morgan Stanley. She is a phenom who is well known on Wall Street. She’s a motivational speaker. She’s written best-selling books. She has sold out multiple concerts at Carnegie Hall. She also sold out a show at the Apollo Theater. She has done it all. And, she has very, very, short natural hair. I think this sends such a wonderful signal to everyone about what is important to one’s success and what is not. This generation has grown up seeing people like Carla with natural hair, so straightening their hair to fit in to corporate norms is not something that makes sense to them.

From your experience, why are students interested in taking your ‘Leading Diversity in Organizations’ class?

In each of the sections I teach, around half of the students are Americans who are interested in the multiple identities conversation, including race, gender, sexual orientation, and social class. The rest of the students hail from outside of the United States. Many are interested in talking about social class and religion, and many are interested in talking about diversity of thought. There are so many different diversity conversations occurring in my classes, which actually mirrors what’s happening in the workforce. There is also a wide range of experience in talking about diversity in a group setting. Some people take my class because their friends have told them that I’m knowledgeable and nice. Others need a half-credit course. Others are social justice warriors and want to figure out how to make the world a better place for everyone. However, it is an elective course and many students enrolled in my classes would like nothing more for this course to be required for all Penn students. This feedback shows up consistently in my course evaluations.

Have you seen progress in diversity research in your 10-plus years of study?

I never thought I would see the day that we would be talking so openly about multiple identities, authenticity, and bringing your whole self to work, and loosening some of the rather strict standards around hairstyles and appearances at work. It’s really amazing. Recently, I was sharing my research at a different university and a faculty member commented on how the topic of diversity has been marginalized for so long in our academic journals and in our workplace practices. Many of us were told that we shouldn’t do diversity research because it would kill our careers. Fast forward to the present. This is a hot topic; schools like Wharton are devoting a lot of resources to this topic. We now have the Leading Diversity@Wharton Speaker Series to show for these efforts. I have several Wharton MBA students who want to take on professional diversity roles in organizations. This is incredible.

Historically, it was extremely difficult to get a wide range of people energized and motivated to actually do the work needed to improve equity and the ability to learn from differences in organizations. It used to be the norm that the chief diversity officer was an African-American female or male. This is changing. So many people who are not African American want to lead diversity initiatives in their companies, and that is wonderful. It is exactly what is needed to push us farther ahead.