Diversity as a Career

Tuesday, Feb 28, 2023 • Jeremiah Valentine : Contact

During Black History Month, I wanted to talk to an advocate of diversity at the College of Business, Dr. Myrtle Bell. She has published many different articles about diversity in the workplace and she is the inaugural Associate Dean for Diversity, Racial Equity, and Inclusion.

A champion for a workforce that is more dynamic and inclusive, I asked Dr. Bell what led her to this work initially and she said, “I grew up in the deep south of the United States, I experienced discrimination and disparate treatment. I also lived in a Black neighborhood where there was love, psychological safety, warmth, and having a mom who was a professor was critical. She brought Black, White, Asian, African, and South American students home and encouraged love and friendships with people of all races, religions, classes, abilities, and sexual orientations. That has led me to this work. I believe this work is my charge to do.” These initial childhood influences have shaped Dr. Bell’s career.

Looking at our mainstream attitudes about minority struggles with policing, treatment from employers and society, I asked if she felt like there has been an awakening in common culture approaching race and diversity and she said, “To some extent, many people under 50 were unaware of some of the history of the United States. Seeing George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery killed in the street was appalling and surprising, even though Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and countless other Black people had unjustly lost their lives in the past.”

After the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Rodney King, Tyre Nichols, and Breonna Taylor, does Black History Month have any value? She responded, “this is related to your previous question. It’s important to know our history so we can change the present and future. World War II Veteran, Isaac Woodard, a Black man wearing his uniform while riding a bus, was beaten and blinded by South Carolina police in 1946 after serving to secure democracy elsewhere. Police also brutally beat Rodney King in California on video 30 years ago. Many people do not know that today’s police forces descended from slave patrols. Their purpose was to search for, hunt, and terrorize Black enslaved people who had escaped, with the goal of squelching escapes altogether. People need to know our history to understand the present and to change the present and future.”

And at that point I asked, what do you think would allow America to accept its past and start healing? And she said, “I think education matters tremendously. I think love matters too, and I truly believe that love is greater than hate.” This comment made me reflect on something a mentor of mine once said which was to be the change you want to see. Dr. Bell embodies that statement. Dr. Bell wrote the textbook, Diversity in Organizations, which is also a class she teaches on campus.

I asked her if that text is being realized at the corporate level. And she responded, “Not yet, but I believe with education there can be change. And over the almost two decades that the book has been published, many people have told me what changes they’ve implemented in their organizations, based on what they had learned. For example, some have implemented structured interviewing, in which all candidates are asked the same questions, based on the job requirements. They’ve stopped the “tell me about yourself” line of questioning, which doesn’t help find the most qualified candidate and can allow people to rely on stereotypes, biases, and the similarity effect. Many people have changed their ways of finding candidates to be more inclusive, coming to places like UTA, which have a diverse student body, rather than more homogeneous places. They have questioned their thoughts about “merit,” aware that perceptions of who and what are meritorious are raced, gendered, and classed. Who was in the room when “merit” was defined? Who was absent from the room? Why?” The changes she wrote about have made an impact beyond its students to workforces for companies who reference important pieces of her work.

Inspiring students and employers is what all academics aim for, but it made me inquire why? Why is diversity important, in the workplace or otherwise? Why is diversity important for all students to gain a perspective of? And she answered, “Diversity is important for fairness and equity. We have a long and deep history of exclusion and discrimination in society that advantages some groups and disadvantages others. Pursuing diversity can help bring about fairness and equity that have historically not existed. Diversity is also important for group functioning and organizational success—diverse groups perform better. They come up with better ideas and more solutions to problems than homogeneous groups do and are good for organizational success and profitability.”

Next, I asked, do you feel like you have filled a gap in diversity studies for students? She responded, “I hope that I have. I’ve looked at a lot of different types of diversity research, from my earliest publications to things I’m working on now. One of my first publications looked at surface-level diversity (such as race and sex—the things you can see) versus deep-level diversity (the invisible differences) and how over time, surface-level diversity matters less in group functioning has been very influential in the diversity-research area. When my colleagues and I wrote this paper, I was a doctoral student and I also was working in a large corporation at the time, in a very diverse group. We were all types of demographics including Black, and white, with an age range of 24 – 60, married, single, and parents. We were extremely cohesive. The academic research said we wouldn’t be cohesive due to our diversity, and we wouldn’t function well, but we were extremely productive and cared about one another. What we found in our research was that diversity at the surface-level mattered less than deep-level differences, once the members of a team got to know one another. This was ground-breaking research and it set the diversity world on fire. I’ve also looked at sexual harassment, sexual orientation diversity, the effect of partner violence on working women, immigrants’ workplace experiences, and disability stigma. All my work has the goal of making work (and society) more equitable and inclusive.”

Processing that, I wanted to know what she thought it would take for diversity to be practiced and observed versus treating the word, diversity, like a concept? And she answered, “I think the recognition of the importance of diversity is critical. As we grow more and more diverse as a country, we must provide opportunities for those who were historically denied them or relegated to certain jobs in certain organizations. I think we need more love and to see each other as fellow human beings with hearts and souls.”

Looking at all of Dr. Bell’s intellectual contributions, I asked what has been your most challenging and rewarding piece of research? And she said, “I think the most challenging piece is the article I mentioned about surface and deep-level diversity. It’s important and it has shaped many articles (it has been cited by thousands of other researchers and has shaped others’ research trajectories and careers). Yet, it’s very clear that surface-level differences still matter in our organizations and society. They matter in the selection, promotion, compensation, training and development, termination, and all other human resources practices. They matter in who is perceived as a good leader and who receives opportunities that prepare them for leadership. They matter in who gets probation or deferred adjudication in the criminal justice system. They matter in maternal health and other medical care. They mattered in Tuskegee and they matter today. Surface-level differences matter a great deal, and we still need to be working hard to make sure that they matter less and less in our organizations and society.

My most rewarding piece of research is my book, Diversity in Organizations, which we already spoke about. It cites thousands of other scholars’ diversity work and provides students with insights into this important work. It helps dispel stereotypes and biases, replacing them with research-based evidence about different groups and their experiences. Over the years, I’ve had students from UTA and other universities write and thank me for the work. And they tell me what they’ve done with the knowledge from it, which is truly rewarding and encouraging.”

Looking at her past work in the classroom, its impact on culture and companies, I asked what is next? And she said, “I’m looking into how names signify a person’s race or ethnicity and how this affects them in organizations and society. There has been research which has shown people with Black, Latino, or Asian-sounding names have different experiences than those with White-sounding names. The former groups have to send out more resumes and are channeled into certain jobs—if they get jobs. I’m looking further into when and where that happens and what to do about it.”

Personally, I want to say during Black History Month and every other month, it is important to understand that the differences we use to distinguish ourselves from one another could be considered barriers to a more inclusive, productive, and unique future.