Adina Sterling: “The Real Opposite of Inclusion Isn’t Exclusion — It’s Conformity”

Stanford professor talks about her career path — from designing products to building more diverse workplaces.

May 13, 2021

| by Allison Felt

Stanford GSB associate professor Adina Sterling shares how changes in her career path have affected her perspective and approach to scholarship. “For better or worse, I like to go into fields of inquiry and ask questions that nobody else is asking,” she says.

Sterling teaches a course called Equity by Design and focuses her work on building inclusivity in organizations. “Something that I will frequently say to my MBA students is that the real opposite of inclusion isn’t exclusion — it’s conformity.”

Reflecting on her work and teaching, Sterling says, “I just have an amazing job because I get to think about how to make the world a better place and then immediately interact with students who are striving to do the same thing, and then go out into the world and do just that.”

Full Transcript: Adina Sterling

My name is Adina Sterling. I’m an associate professor in organizational behavior. I teach a course for MBA students called Equity by Design on how to build diverse and inclusive organizations. I also teach in the PhD program and in the MSx program.

What was your first experience in the work world?

I was a diaper engineer. What that meant was that I did product design work and we would collect product after use because we had to look at the integrity and the design of the product so you can think about what that might mean …

That was a lot of fun, but a part of me had always had this dream of going to graduate school. There was this great conference I went to that focuses on increasing the diversity of business school faculty — that was the beginning of me deciding that I was interested in getting a PhD from a business school.

How did your experiences being a diaper engineer at Procter & Gamble lead to your research interests?

When I was at P&G I’d been there maybe two and a half years. My section head, the main manager over a group of engineers, came to me and said, “Adina, you have a social network that it takes people in the company two decades to build.” I thought that’s interesting. But in graduate school, I began to think about how it was that people end up with the social networks that they do. One of the aspects of my time at P&G that came to mind was an internship I had. My associate director graduated from the same high school in Iowa that I had. We immediately connected and the relationship I had with her and the wonderful mentoring I got from her, opened up a ton of doors for me at P&G. So I began to be really interested in what gives people opportunities, social opportunities, and the broader social structures that are underlying the kinds of connections that people have. All of these kinds of commonalities that I think can sometimes lead to hidden advantages and disadvantages during the course of a career.

What are some of the defining features of your scholarship?

I think rigor is hopefully one and creativity. It’s really typical in graduate school to think about what topic is sort of most hot and kind of what’s getting published. For better or worse, I like to go into fields of inquiry and ask questions that nobody else is asking. In my work, I think a lot about figuring out what those undercover mechanisms are that lead to inequity and try to get at that through a variety of methods.

How does it feel to see your research applied by an institution?

One of the things I’ve had the pleasure of doing is putting together webinars and some seminars for companies on how to improve the diversity of their hiring pools and there are companies after I’ve provided them content, will frequently come back and tell me that they have implemented some of the ideas that I’ve talked about and that they are seeing a difference. It is very gratifying when that happens.

If there was one thing you could do to make institutions more equitable, what would it be?

Something that I will frequently say to my MBA students is that the real opposite of inclusion isn’t exclusion — it’s conformity; that a lot of the benefits of diversity get weeded out because we’re looking for people that think a certain way and that act a particular way. If I could do one intervention, it would be to really help people think about just the beauty of diversity in a broader and more nuanced way.

What makes you excited about the future?

I do get really excited that what I study, I get to talk about in the classroom with amazing MBA students and amazing PhD students, and they are just so determined to change the world and that’s inspiring and then those amazing MBA students graduate and then they’ll come back and talk to me about, or send me an email about what sorts of things they’re doing in the workplace. I get so excited. I just have an amazing job because I get to think about how to make the world a better place and then immediately interact with students who are striving to do the same thing, and then go out into the world and do just that.

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