Robin J. Ely

Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration
Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community

Robin Ely is Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community at Harvard Business School.  She conducts research on race and gender relations in organizations with a focus on organizational change, group dynamics, learning, conflict, power, and identity.  Her recent published work includes a study of men and masculinity on offshore oil platforms, research on the impact of racial diversity on retail bank performance, and a framework for the design and delivery of women’s leadership development programs.  Professor Ely is presently conducting research on how women can be effective leaders in the face of gender stereotypes and the so-called “double bind” (the well-documented phenomenon whereby women leaders face a trade-off between being liked and being seen as competent); a study of how cultural beliefs about work and family limit both men’s and women’s ability to thrive professionally and lead whole, fulfilled lives; and a comprehensive, longitudinal study of HBS alumni career and life decisions.  In her role as Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community, Professor Ely is leading a culture change initiative at Harvard Business School to ensure that all members of the HBS community are able to thrive and reach their potential for advancing the School’s mission. Professor Ely has taught MBA courses in leadership, diversity, teams, and statistics and doctoral courses in gender and race relations and in field research methods; she has also taught in HBS’s executive education programs, including leadership programs designed specifically for women. 

For the past several years, Professor Ely has maintained an active faculty affiliation at the Center for Gender in Organizations, Simmons Graduate School of Management, in Boston.   Prior to joining the HBS faculty, she taught at Columbia University and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.  Professor Ely received her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from Yale University and her Bachelor’s degree from Smith College.  She is a member of the Academy of Management, has served on numerous editorial boards of academic journals, and is a past associate editor of Administrative Science Quarterly.

  1. Robin Ely Speaks at the HBS W50 Summit

    Harvard Business School's Professor Robin Ely speaks April 4 at the W50 Summit. The summit was a two-day program focused on accelerating the advancement of women leaders who make a difference in the world.

  2. Reader in Gender, Work, and Organization

    This reader uses an alternative approach to gender at work to provoke new thinking about traditional management topics, such as leadership and negotiation.
    • Presents students with an alternative conceptual approach to gender in the workplace.
    • Connects gender with other dimensions of difference such as race and class for a deeper understanding of diversity in organizations.
    • Illustrates how traditional images of competence and the ideal worker result in narrow ways of thinking about work, limiting both opportunity and organizational effectiveness.
    • Provokes new ways of thinking about leadership, human resource management, negotiation, globalization and organizational change.
  3. Unshackling the 'Double Bind' of the Female Leader

    Few women have succeeded in shattering the glass ceiling. Even those who have achieved phenomenal success in their respective fields have taken a few hard knocks along the way.
    One needs to look no further than Hilary Clinton and her recent quest to become US president. Touted as the more experienced of two Democrat candidates, she eventually conceded defeat to her charismatic opponent. 

    According to Robin Ely, a Professor of Organisational Behavior at Harvard Business School, women often end up in a 'double bind'.
  4. Racial Diversity, Racial Asymmetries, and Team Learning Environment: Effects on Performance

    This paper argues that learning in cross-race interactions is critical for work teams to realize performance benefits from racial diversity but that diversity is a liability when society's negative stereotypes about racial minorities' competence inhibit such interactions. We analyze two years of data from 496 retail bank branches to investigate racial asymmetries in the dynamics of team learning and their impact on the link between diversity and bottom-line performance. As expected, minorities' negative assessments of their team's learning environment precipitate a negative relationship between diversity and performance, irrespective of white teammates' assessments; only when both groups view the team's learning environment as supportive-implying that the team has successfully countered the negative effects of societal stereotypes on cross-race learning-is the relationship positive. We conclude that acknowledging the impact of societal asymmetries between racial groups, especially in regard to learning, can reorient research about the link between identity-group-based diversity and performance.
  5. Taking Gender Into Account

    We conceptualize leadership development as identity work and show how subtle forms of gender bias in the culture and in organizations interfere with the identity work of women leaders. Based on this insight, we revisit traditional approaches to standard leadership topics, such as negotiations and leading change, as well as currently popular developmental tools, such as 360-degree feedback and networking; reinterpret them through the lens of women's experiences in organizations; and revise them in order to meet the particular challenges women face when transitioning into senior leadership. By framing leadership development as identity work, we reveal the gender dynamics involved in becoming a leader, offer a theoretical rationale for teaching leadership in women-only groups, and suggest design and delivery principles to increase the likelihood that women's leadership programs will help women advance into more senior leadership roles.

  6. An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender

    This case study of two offshore oil platforms illustrates how an organizational initiative designed to enhance safety and effectiveness created a culture that unintentionally released men from societal imperatives for "manly" behavior, prompting them to let go of masculine-image concerns and to behave instead in counter-stereotypical ways. Rather than proving how tough, proficient, and cool-headed they were, as was typical of men in other dangerous workplaces, platform workers readily acknowledged their physical limitations, publicly admitted their mistakes, and openly attended to their own and others' feelings. More importantly, platform workers did not replace a conventional image of masculinity with an unconventional one and then set out to prove the new image-revealing mistakes strategically, for example, or competing in displays of sensitivity. Instead, the goal of proving one's masculine credentials, conventional or otherwise, appeared to no longer hold sway in men's workplace interactions. Building on West and Zimmerman's (1987) now classic articulation of gender as "the product of social doings," we describe this organizationally induced behavior as "undoing" gender. We use this case, together with secondary case data drawn from 10 published field studies of men doing dangerous work, to induce a model of how organizational cultures equip men to "do" and "undo" gender at work.