30 Sep 2022

News from the Gender Initiative: Q+A with Robin Ely and Colleen Ammerman


by Shona Simkin

Robin Ely, Stephanie Creary, and Sanaz Mobasseri at the 2022 Gender & Work Symposium.
Robin Ely, Stephanie Creary, and Sanaz Mobasseri at the 2022 Gender & Work Symposium. Photo courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva.

The Gender Initiative has announced an update: moving forward, it will be the Race, Gender, and Equity Initiative. To learn more about the change, we talked with Robin J. Ely, initiative chair and Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration, and Colleen Ammerman, director.

Remind us about the founding and initial goals of the Gender Initiative.
Ely: After W50, the 2013 celebration of the 50th anniversary of women being admitted to the MBA Program, there was great energy and significant engagement around issues of gender. I talked with (then) Dean Nitin Nohria about creating a space on campus where scholars and practitioners could come together to discuss gender in the workplace, and after W50 it felt like the right time. We had hired Colleen to do research for W50 and she stayed on to become director when we established the Initiative in the 2014-2015 academic year.

We called it the Gender Initiative because of the groundswell around gender but we explicitly never thought of it as only about gender. It has always covered other dimensions of inequality, such as race and class, especially as they intersect with gender inequality in the workplace. We wanted to create an entity that would encompass the work many faculty members were already doing, as well as in anticipation and hope that we would have more faculty members over the years who would be interested in these topics and affiliated with the Initiative. We launched an annual conference, the Gender and Work Research Symposium, and a longitudinal study of our alumni, Life and Leadership After HBS, both of which were seeded at W50. We’ve been growing the Initiative ever since.

Why is now the right time for this change?
Ely: At our five-year mark, in the fall of 2019, we did both an external and internal review and collected data about the Initiative, and learned that many faculty, alumni, students, and staff didn’t really understand what we did. We had a lot of discussions about who we were and about our mission. That was our first foray into thinking about changing our name and being more explicit about the work we’ve always done around race.

Then there was the murder of George Floyd and the very painful summer of 2020. Dean Nohria convened an Antiracism Task Force, which generated many discussions among faculty, staff, students, and alumni about different ways to address race as a School. That culminated in the School’s Racial Equity Plan (REP), which among its many recommendations called for an initiative to address racial inequality. From my perspective, it was important that we recognize what we were already doing in that domain and that we continue with the intersectional approach to gender we’d been taking—that we not hive off race as if either gender or race could be addressed in isolation. But in conversations with Dean Srikant Datar, we also wanted to be clear that race wasn’t going to somehow be subsumed into an initiative that prioritized gender, because we knew it could appear that way. So we wanted to be sensitive to all of that and not be reactive.

We proposed the name Race, Gender, and Equity Initiative because it names the two domains—race and gender—that currently make up the bulk of research being conducted by our faculty. And by adding equity, it acknowledges that other axes of inequality are being and will continue to be taken up by the School and our faculty.

How does your work interact with that of the new Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) and the other efforts around the School focused on race?
Ammerman: The ODEI office is really championing HBS’s own institutional work around equity and inclusion, and of course there are additional efforts around the School supporting those goals—like the staff affinity groups, for instance. The Initiative is a hub for research and translating and disseminating research insights to practitioners, including our alumni. There will be overlap and synergies between the research and the School’s internal work—for example, the Initiative has always done work on diversity in business education and curricula, and when we do that we’re also talking about our own classrooms and what it means to educate leaders here at the School. Meanwhile, making HBS more diverse and equitable enhances our ability to engage and impact practice. The Initiative’s role is less about HBS’s own internal journey, but certainly we hope our efforts help the School advance diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campus and further our institutional commitments to racial justice.

What do you most want the community to know about the update and what it means for the Initiative?
Ammerman: This transition reflects our roots, which is to say our focus has never been gender in isolation. We have always believed in the power and potential of intersectionality, particularly as a lens that can help us develop better analytical tools and practices to facilitate meaningful social change. But it’s also a recognition that we’re in a different place today, not least because we have more faculty working on race and racial inequality than we did at launch. We’re really excited about that—it’s an opportunity to elevate that work and help translate it and get it into the hands of people who can use it to drive change. Our new name is reflective of where we’ve been, but also looking toward the future. We believe that business can play a key role in the movement toward collective equality.

Ely: We’re also very excited about the new BiGS Racial Equity Fellows and the academic partnership with the OneTen Initiative. These efforts signals that we, and the School generally, are looking to be a place where we grow our work in this area not just through our own faculty, but by being a hub for others to join. There are so many opportunities to advance our research and learning agendas. We would love to draw people to HBS because we have this great core of faculty working in this area—across multiple disciplines and with access to data. The vision is to have people spend time here—we’d learn from them and they’d learn from us.

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