Q&A With Dr. Laura Kray, PhD
Laura Kray is a leading expert on the social psychological barriers influencing women’s career attainment. Dr. Kray is the recipient of multiple research awards from the Academy of Management, the International Association of Conflict Management, and the California Management Review. She is a fellow to both the Association for Psychological Science and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. From 2017 to 2018, she was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Some of her current research seeks to debunk popular myths about the gender pay gap and to identify solutions to gender inequality in the workplace.
The Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership recently connected with Dr. Kray to learn more about her journey and influence in conducting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) research. Her personal experience and research findings on gender inequalities has centered her research on addressing structural barriers in the workplace and breaking them down. We discussed how she stays motivated despite facing challenges and the legacy she hopes to leave behind in DEI.
How have your lived experiences influenced your journey to the DEI research you are engaged in?
Having grown up with 3 sisters and no brothers, I was blissfully unaware of the differences in how boys and girls are treated and what is expected of them. I am fortunate that our parents raised us to see no barriers in terms of what we could become. This foundation enabled me to have high aspirations and believe in myself. It also runs in contrast to some of what I have experienced, and seen others experience, in the workplace. This sparked my interest in understanding the gender barriers that arise within hierarchical, profit-oriented environments. The workplace tends to have a different set of operating assumptions about the nature of relationships than the home. Whereas the former is characterized by authority ranking and market pricing, the family unit is often characterized by communal sharing. This disconnection is fascinating and makes me want to challenge the damaging assumptions that maintain inequality between different social groups in the workplace.
How have the findings from your research shaped your own perspectives and leadership approach?
In 2014, I published a research article in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes with two former doctoral students (Jessica Kennedy and Alex Van Zant, now assistant professors at Vanderbilt and Rutgers universities) observing unethical behavior in a negotiation simulation in the MBA classroom. The exercise is designed to challenge students to navigate a tricky real estate transaction that invites deception by constraining what negotiators can reveal to each other. We were interested in seeing if men are more deceptive with each other than women are when negotiating with each other, consistent with assumptions about men’s greater competitiveness and women’s greater cooperativeness. This is not what we found. Instead, we found that men and women alike were more deceptive when negotiating with women than when their negotiating counterpart was a man. It was at this moment that I began to question popular narratives about women being poor negotiators. In this situation, women were treated worse than men, through no fault of their own. It made me wary of blaming women for the negative treatment that arise due to negative stereotypes (in this case, it appears as though the stereotype that women are incompetent enabled negotiators to rationalize their own deception towards women). As a result of this insight, I shifted my focus to identifying structural barriers and legislative interventions to level the playing field.
How has the DEI field changed since you first started? What has been your favorite development in this work?
I first started studying gender differences in negotiations in 1997, after an MBA student in my class at Northwestern University dumbfounded me by asking a simple question that I could not answer. I still remember the woman in the back of the room who raised her hand asking, “This is all well and good what you are teaching us about effective negotiating, but what difference does gender make?” At the time, I had never thought about it and I was not alone in my academic discipline, which tended to disfavor research on personality and individual differences in that era. I stalled for a time and told her I would get back to her. After class, I asked a very esteemed, senior male colleague that is an expert on negotiations if he ever gets this question and, if so, how he answers it. His reply was, “I say, ‘That’s not an interesting question.’” Fast forward over 20 years since that exchange, I am happy to say that the field has evolved to value the study of gender differences and the professor who dismissed it outright as “uninteresting” was mortified when I reminded him of our exchange (not surprisingly, he had no recollection of his flippant response, while it seared in my memory). This experience is a good reminder that people can change, and so can entire fields of inquiry.
What do you want your legacy to be in this field?
When all is said and done, I want to be remembered as a meticulous pursuer of truth. Along with that, I want to be known as a courageous and fair-minded scholar, teacher, and mentor.
In your field you’re addressing and challenging barriers that have been fought by generations before you, how do you stay motivated to continue this work and push forward even when you can’t see immediate results?
As a research scientist, I am trained to be patient, knowing how long it takes to generate sound empirical knowledge. It takes even more patience when it comes to applying basic research findings — the temporal gap between new findings and figuring out how to apply them to solve social problems is longer than anyone would like. For me, the more short-term rewards that sustain me include sparking interest in doctoral students and research assistants to pursue new lines of inquiry, sharing hot-off-the-press findings in the MBA classroom and encouraging students to tackle the application in their work environments, and in engaging in debates at academic conferences and in writing for the popular press. I am fortunate to have access to so many different stakeholders of academic research as it really energizes me on a day-by-day and year-by-year basis.