One percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black, and of that small number, none are Black women. This shocking but sadly unsurprising statistic sets the table for a conversation on “Meritocracy, Bias, and Allyship,” a key lecture in Stephanie Creary’s Leading Diversity in Organizations course for both undergraduate and MBA students — the first class of its kind at Wharton. To tackle such a complex topic, the assistant professor of management focuses on three areas of learning: challenges facing women and underrepresented racial minorities in reaching senior leadership roles; obstacles that can inhibit support; and the often-unseen impacts of identity experiences in the workplace.

Reaching the “last rung” on the ladder of success requires tools that are often denied to women and racial minorities, including support from management and peer networks, Creary says. Even when support is offered, research shows that the perception of risk is an inhibiting factor — for example, senior men may be reluctant to support junior women out of fear that their intentions could be misinterpreted as inappropriate. Leaders also fall prey to the meritocracy fallacy, thinking talent and effort are all that are needed for success while overlooking the value of advocacy.

Creary also shares the eye-opening results of a study she conducted of 34 senior U.S. Army officers to better understand how they support the women and racial minority professionals they lead. She found their past and present professional experiences create “identity defenses” that shape their support styles, and that not all who try to support are doing so in the most effective ways. Some Black officers expressed their struggle to be seen as prototypical leaders and not just leaders of color; many male officers still wrestle with the role of women in the military. Among the numerous challenges her study revealed, says Creary, is, “How do you train leaders that just showing up to be a mentor isn’t enough?”

Of course, current events like the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements help to shape the class discussion, but Creary finds the material speaks to broader fundamental and sometimes uncomfortable truths. “It really gets at these values that students hold and challenges the notion that if you work hard, you’ll be successful,” she says. “It’s the heart of the American dream.”


Published as “At the Whiteboard With Stephanie Creary” in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Wharton Magazine.