Carnegie Mellon University

Tepper Together Logo: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 18, 2022

How Leaders Can Impact Social Inequality in Their Organizations

Faculty member Rosalind M. Chow discusses her contributions to DEI&B thought leadership, as well as her experiences as an Asian American.

When asked to provide her elevator pitch, Rosalind M. Chow, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at the Tepper School, laughed.

“I have zero capability of doing elevator pitches and things like that,” she happily, albeit sheepishly said, a feeling many of us can relate to. Within the next ten seconds, Chow launched into a critical, scholarly analysis of a recent article in a major news publication that misrepresented how many up-and-coming tech companies in Silicon Valley are owned or founded by Asian people, backing up her statements with statistics and research trends.

It turns out that you don’t need an elevator pitch when your research speaks for itself. 

Over the past few years, Chow has been working diligently at the Tepper School to become the face of social inequality research (such as racial and gender inequality). Her research focuses on hierarchy maintenance, inequality frames, individuals’ status in team settings, and emotions and moral judgements. She has published a number of scholarly articles on white Americans’ responses to racial inequality, and how members of dominant groups can contribute to the dismantling of systemic bias.

More recently, her research focuses on promotion processes within organizations, with a specialization in sponsorship. This work has enriched her contributions to executive education, where she serves as the faculty director of the several Tepper School Executive Education DEI&B programs, including a partnership with Deloitte and the Fostering Organizational Equity (FORGE) leadership development program, and was the originating faculty director for the school’s Executive Leadership Academy. 

“If I had to say what I’d like to be known for, I would say I’d like to be…the person you can come to, to help problem-solve and learn more about sponsorship in the workplace,” she said. 

“What I mean by that is that I want to help people understand that they can be intentional in creating  processes that work toward social equity. You can do this at an institutional level, but also a personal level. How do we create our social networks? How do we create relationships between people who may or may not be similar, in whatever dimension, and what are the specific things I can do to speak up as a sponsor? For those people and topics, I want to help.”

The Power of Diverse Networks: How Individuals can Promote Change

Although organizations have increasingly — from both a moral and business standpoint — talked about the power of a diverse employee pool, wide scale changes are slow to take effect. 

“We have leaders who know they want to diversify the workforce, increase retention, and improve promotions of women and under-represented minorities, but then there’s tension between speed, efficiency, quality, and process. Hiring managers want diversity in representation, but it takes a lot of time to actually get that,” Chow said.

“Meanwhile, they are being hounded to get more people in, fast.”

This need for speed often limits the diversity present within a hiring pool. However, one way to expand the diversity of a hiring pool is to tap the networks of existing employees through referral bonuses. 

“Referral bonuses are win-win-win for the company, employee, and job candidate, because research shows that when you already know someone in the organization, you’re not only more likely to be hired, you also tend to have higher performance, presumably because your contact can share information with you that enables you get up to speed faster,” Chow said.

“The problem with this approach is that most people’s networks are predominantly made up of contacts that are similar to them. This is why, when you rely on employee referrals, you typically end up with a hiring pool that looks like the one you already have in-house. So, win-win-win for the companies and their employees, but win-lose if you’re thinking about diversity and inclusion.”

Leaders can change this by expanding their own personal and professional networks to include people who aren’t from the same ethnic or racial background – or who simply don’t look like them. Employers can then leverage these employees’ networks and offer referral incentives for recruiting these unrepresented employees.

“There’s a saying, 'You get what you measure,'” Chow said. “In this case, it’s ‘you get what you reward.’ If what you want is a more diverse hiring pool, then incentivizing your employees to think more carefully about the diversity within their own networks is something you can capitalize on. Incentivizing employees to increase diversity in their networks is a good thing for everyone; it gives the company access to more diverse talent and it creates opportunities for sponsorship.”

Sponsorship, according to Chow, is a powerful way for individuals to increase diversity and inclusion in their organizations. It refers to a sponsor’s actions that change other people’s perceptions of a protege in the eyes of others.

“If you do something to make someone trust another person more, that’s sponsorship. Take, for example, referrals. By making the referral, the sponsor is saying, ‘I trust this person, and you trust me, so you should trust and believe in this person the same way I do.’"

“If you have a diverse network, sponsorship relationships can be impactful in the service of making larger, systemic changes,” Chow said. “This is how we make this change.”

Addressing Anti-Asian Sentiment and Asian Identity

When asked about her own experiences as an Asian American woman and faculty member who focuses on DEI&B research, Chow grew contemplative.

“Because of what I study, I am so sensitive to my identity: as a woman, my racial identity, and my role within Tepper as an OBT faculty member. I have other identities too, like being a mom, a daughter, a wife, or a Californian, but those aren’t identities I choose to highlight about myself. Sometimes, people want to know why I’m so focused on gender and race,” she said. 

“I want people who ask me that to understand, I don’t have the privilege of not having to think about these things. [Maybe] you have that luxury, but even if I wanted to, I could never get away from these identities. They impact how I engage with you, even if you believe they don't impact how you engage with me, which I promise you, they probably do.”

As anti-Asian sentiment continues to grow, as well as division among minority groups who are all impacted by unconscious (and conscious) bias, Chow leans into commonality. 

“Asians have much more in common with other ethnic groups in the United States than people remember or give credit to. Exclusionary laws existed, indentured servitude was very real. Asian people and Black people were in solidarity in the Civil Rights movement and historically were able to work together, to make progress, and to move forward. Minority groups have more in common than we realize, even today.” 

Choosing How we Talk About Inequality

Chow’s latest research takes a closer look at this complicated issue, including how we talk about social inequalities. 

“If you ask normal people how they talk about social inequalities — racial, gender, wealth — patterns emerge. People will talk persistently about how the subordinate group is worse off, and rarely ever question the position of the dominant group. For example, if you think about gender equalities, people will say that women are more frequently asked to do non promotable tasks instead of saying that men are less likely to be asked to do non promotable tasks. These describe the same situation, but people don’t think that they are the same.”

“If you’re going to have a conversation about how to equalize things, then we can’t just focus on those who are worse off; we need to say, ok, these problems don’t arise only because things are bad for some groups. It’s also the case that things are good for other groups. Are the things that make things worse for some groups the same as the things that make things better for others? Switching how you think about problems can open your eyes to other potential causes that could be helpful when we are thinking about solutions,” she said.

Read Chow’s most recent article on social inequalities in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For additional thought leadership in DEI&B topics from the Tepper School, visit the Tepper Together Thought Leadership page.