Leading identity and diversity scholar Stephanie J. Creary, PhD, shares her ideas on creating more inclusive and equitable workplaces and organizations.

headshot of Stephanie Creary

Identity and diversity scholar Dr. Stephanie Creary shares insights from her personal journey and her groundbreaking DEI research. Stephanie J. Creary, PhD, is a leading identity and diversity scholar whose award-winning work is focused on studying and creating more inclusive and equitable workplaces and organizations.

Dr. Creary is an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania where she also hosts the Leading Diversity at Work podcast series, engaging in conversation with a variety of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) experts. She is also a visiting faculty fellow in the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Business School Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society (BiGS).

Dr. Creary’s research has been widely published in a variety of leading management journals, and insights from her research have been featured in top media outlets. She recently published the article “How Diversity Can Boost Board Effectiveness“ in collaboration with Deloitte where she introduced the CARE model as a framework to help boards activate DEI.

In this interview, Dr. Creary shares some of the most vital insights for achieving DEI outcomes she’s gained through her research, discusses her own personal experience of navigating her life and career as a Black woman, and shares three important takeaways on allyship, offering the reminder that “Each of us, no matter who we are, can and should be an ally.”

Tell us about your journey. Why are you so passionate about DEI?

I got my start thinking about, caring about, and getting deeply into DEI work when I was in college. And in 2006, I started an MBA program, and I met Professor Stacy Blake-Beard. She was the first Black teacher or professor I’d had, and I was 30 years old at this time. She was an organizational behavior professor, and her research was focused on mentoring women of color. I remember going up to her and asking, “Is there any way I can work with you on your research?” and she said, “Yes.” That’s when I found the fields of organizational behavior research and diversity research. This opened up a whole set of opportunities to begin to understand how we can help organizations, whether they’re universities or corporate organizations, develop more effective and more inclusive cultures where people who are from historically marginalized groups can thrive.

So I’ve been delighted to be doing this type of work for about the last 16 years. As challenging as it can be to support DEI practices, I’m heartened to know that things have improved so much more than 16 years ago when I first started doing this work. My journey has been from a consumer, an employee, a student, to now someone who’s doing research on this topic with the goal of imbuing business leaders, and the field of academia, with tools that help them to engage in a more effective DEI practice that can help us to achieve the goals we want to achieve.

If we actually want people who feel like they belong in an organization to help us in our DEI journey, then we have to make sure that they feel part of the DEI practices that we create.

What are some of the most vital insights you’ve gained through your research about how to create more inclusive workplaces and organizations?

One of my favorite recent projects started off as a way of trying to understand what DEI leaders presume they are accomplishing by putting DEI practices into place. What I found was that companies are doing a lot of different activities, but not a lot that’s directly tied to an outcome.

So, for me, when I think about what it’s going to take to continue to advance inclusion in organizations and create environments where everybody can thrive—no matter their backgrounds—it is important to be able to define a clear set of outcomes, things like people’s lived experiences of inclusion and belonging, of feeling respected, or things like your willingness to engage in the task. And then as we create practices, helping ourselves to understand, do these practices drive those outcomes? I talk about this as evidence-based diversity, equity, and inclusion practice.

In this study, we took something that people in the field of diversity are really passionate about right now, which is this experience of belonging. DEI leaders often make assumptions about what the experience of belonging might achieve, and one of them is that people who feel like they belong will do more to improve the DEI environment for other people. So, for example, if I feel like I belong, I might be more likely to look at Sarah and say, “How can I help Sarah feel like she belongs?” It’s a natural set of assumptions.

But in our research, we find that just because you feel like you belong, it doesn’t mean you’re actually going to do anything DEI related. We found the difference is in organizations that have a lot of DEI practices where people feel that they have access to them. So, whether I’m a woman or a man, whether I’m Black or White or gay or straight, if I feel that I have access, which means I can participate in these things to a high extent, and I feel like I belong, then I’m more likely to do other things to improve the DEI environment.

If we actually want people who feel like they belong in an organization to help us in our DEI journey, then we have to make sure that they feel part of the DEI practices that we create, that they’re engaged and involved in them, and that they feel they have a role or a place in those very practices.

The more of us who show up authentically, whatever that means for us—for me, it’s my authentic hairstyle—the more that will invite other people to know that it’s all perfectly professional and acceptable in a workplace environment and to feel like they can do the same.

How has your own personal experience of navigating your life and career as a Black woman influenced your perspective and work on this?

In academia we always joke about research being “me search,” and I think that’s because it takes so long to publish a paper, that you have to feel personally invested in the things you’re studying, and it becomes easier to be personally invested in things that implicate you somehow. Certainly, my foray into identity scholarship and diversity scholarship was born out of my own experiences navigating academic institutions, health care institutions, and corporate environments as a Black woman. I was experiencing a disconnect between what organizations said that they valued, which was, “We value diversity,” with this idea that when I showed up, I was supposed to conform and assimilate to whatever the culture was. I found that really hard, and I also found it really tricky when I talked to people who were from majority groups who didn’t have that same experience. They were comfortable, they thought this place was great, and I felt like I was doing extra work.

One of the other things from an external perspective that has evolved the most for me is the ways in which I choose to wear my hair. I remember being a young girl, the first time my mom ever straightened my hair. I think for her it was about, you needed to look “tidy.” When I got to college, I started to grow out my straight hair into a short Afro style. And I remember my mom being like, “What’s happening with your hair?” It was like an identity crisis for her, but for me it was a validating experience. And now I have long locks. I wear them wherever I go. My hair has become an identity expression for me; it’s about embracing who I am at my core.

And realizing that now, as I’m more accomplished in my career, even though I still feel like that little girl whose mom was straightening her hair on Saturdays, to other people, I am a role model. So I try to show up in spaces saying, “People will get used to it. The more of us who show up authentically, whatever that means for us—for me, it’s my authentic hairstyle—the more that will invite other people to know that it’s all perfectly professional and acceptable in a workplace environment and to feel like they can do the same.”

You’ve also conducted research on allyship behavior. Legal scholar Kenji Yoshino, another Bold Actions discussion series interviewee, said he believes allyship is “the next big wave and the thing that’s really going to make a difference in the DEI space.” What is your perspective and advice on effective allyship? And in your words, what does it mean to be an ally?

I want to first acknowledge that there is a history of feminist and critical studies research on allyship that goes back at least until the ‘70s or ‘80s that was focused not on dominant group members, like men being allies to women; it was actually focused on people who were from historically marginalized groups being allies to other people from historically marginalized groups—looking within the women of color community at how to ensure that Black women are being allies to Latina women and Latina women are being allies to Asian American women.

I like to acknowledge that history because what often gets lost in corporate DEI practice and talking about allyship is energizing people from all groups to be allies. Oftentimes we’re only looking for men or White people or straight people to be allies. Sometimes the whole conception of allyship in the workplace is putting the focus on people from dominant groups and we forget that each of us, no matter who we are, can and should be an ally. So when I define allyship, I don’t define it as a demographic group; I define it as somebody who has some degree of power or privilege. Because the reality is, we all do in some space. It’s about recognizing what we have to offer and spotting opportunities where we can be helpful.

The ways in which we typically talk about allyship is one person doing something for someone else. Allyship can feel paternalistic to both the person who’s the ally and the person who’s the target when it feels that it’s only about you doing for me as opposed to doing with me. So how do we share responsibility in helping to improve my daily lived experience? It’s this idea of what co-conspirator leadership and being an accomplice looks like, relative to a top-down, paternalistic, patriarchal model.

Allyship can also be structural or institutional—it’s not just interpersonal acts. That means that you can be an ally by helping to challenge and change systems, structures, policies, and practices that create the haves and the have-nots. That is a form of allyship where there’s not a specific focal person; there’s a group of people or a collective that is invoked when you do it.

It’s important for leaders to remind themselves of what their North Star is and not to change their core values to appease others who have differing perspectives.

What strategies to improve DEI have you seen work, and where are there opportunities to do more?

Training managers to be effective managers of teams, particularly diverse teams, is a core set of DEI practices that I would say may need more investment in organizations. I often hear things like, “It’s so hard to get managers on board and engaged in DEI,” but there are DEI practices that can be targeted toward improving their competencies and their comfort with leading and managing diverse teams. That’s one area of ripe opportunity.

Another core set of important practices would be having initiatives focused on mentorship and sponsorship. Whether they are orchestrated from the top of the organization, or everybody is assigned one, or whether it’s a peer mentoring program or just being able to say, “I need a mentor or sponsor. Can you help me find one?”—all of these are germane to being effective policies.

DEI education is important. When people tell me that diversity programs don’t work, and even colleagues from other institutions write articles saying diversity programs are a waste of time, I’m like, “Do you realize you’re saying that education is pointless?” I struggle to understand that coming from people who are educated. Education is not a waste of time. Training is not a waste of time. But there is a lot to be said about the design of training, the content of the training, and the experiences that people have in DEI training that is critical to being able to achieve any of the things I just mentioned.

What leadership attributes do you think we most need now?

I’ve listened to a number of senior leaders express distress over being called out on social media around their commitments to things like DEI and ESG and social responsibility. And I want to tell them, “I hope you don’t give up your values.” It’s important for leaders to remind themselves of what their North Star is and not to change their core values to appease others who have differing perspectives. And if we can see that for what it is and that the callouts that senior leaders are experiencing around DEI are fundamentally driven by people who value something else, then there’s just a question of values conflict here; we are probably not going to agree. So that means that I, as a leader, need to remain strong in knowing that I can’t drop my values to help other people enact theirs.

In addition to remaining steadfast in one’s values as a leader, I think creating messages of what I would call resilient hope is important. Resilient hope is the hope that people feel when they’ve been through some stuff. They’ve been beat up a bit, and they still feel that there’s a possibility, there’s potential, there’s a future that’s better than the one that we have here today.

What do you think it will take to create a more equitable world? And are you optimistic?

The world is becoming increasingly equitable, so I’m optimistic that it will continue to be so, but I believe it will be slow. We need to have tactics for increasing equity. I would say one of the biggest contributors to creating greater equity in organizations has first been about helping establish that there is inequity. When it comes to pay equity, organizations that have done audits around pay and have been able to show that there’s inequity, and then making it so that there’s greater parity amongst people, that is effective. When it comes to equity and opportunity, being able to go back and look over the lifeline of people’s careers and see what they’ve had access to and why, and ensuring that more people can have access to the same opportunities at a certain level, has become important for helping to create equitable access to opportunities.

And then I would say the place where we’ve been for decades that we haven’t quite gotten right is equitable access to senior leadership positions and board positions. So much of what it takes to get one of those positions is not just about your technical competence; it’s not just about giving you the resources in order to learn how to do the job. It’s about getting people to advocate for you. I think the more we get people in positions of power to feel competent in advocating and supporting a diverse group of people, the more strides we’ll take toward equity in those types of positions of power opportunities.

What are the benefits of a more equitable world? What are we really trying to do here?

We’re trying to create a world where people don’t say, “Because I was born in this body or in these circumstances, my opportunities are limited.” We want to know that no matter which body you were born in, you can be successful, and you can achieve things that you want to be able to achieve.

This article was written by Marianne Schnall, a widely published journalist, author, and contracted Deloitte writer.

This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews. The individual’s participation in this article is solely for educational purposes based on their knowledge of the subject and the views expressed by them are solely their own. This article should not be deemed or construed to be for the purpose of soliciting business for any of the companies mentioned, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse the services or products provided by these companies.

This publication contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor.

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