photo of Rong Su, Michele Wiliams, and Beth Livingston
June 8, 2018
Lesanne B. Fliehler

The Tippie College of Business accomplished a major coup in the past two years when it hired three new assistant professors in the Department of Management and Organizations (M&O) — Michele Williams, Rong Su, and Beth Livingston. Each woman is outstanding in her field of research, and serendipitously, what they have in common is an interest in gender research aimed at solving real-world business problems.

“None of them would say they are primarily a gender researcher, but when we looked at our top candidates, we realized there was a theme running through their research,” says Senior Associate Dean Amy Kristof-Brown, who was instrumental in their hiring when she was the M&O department executive officer. “These women were a great match for the department’s needs.”

MICHELE WILLIAMS: BUSINESS SUCCESS BEGINS WITH A SUCCESSFUL TEAM

Many courses taught in the Tippie College of Business stress teamwork and its importance in business relationships. When Michele Williams teaches the Dynamics of Negotiations course, she brings over 15 years of research into her classrooms.

Williams conducts research on trust and relationships, the role gender plays in team interactions and negotiations, and how relationships are critical to the formation of teams as they prepare to launch a business. Her passion for the topic began as an undergraduate when she was studying psychology at Johns Hopkins University.

As a psychology major, she participated in an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she sat in on decision-making team meetings where the team discussed individual patient treatment plans. Team members included people with different kinds of knowledge: nurses who knew the patient well because of daily interaction, specialty doctors, and physical therapists.

“I was excited to see all my psychology knowledge in action and to see how teams work in real life,” says Williams, the John L. Miclot Faculty Fellow in Entrepreneurship. “The team members all had the exact same goal — to heal the patient — but there was an incredible amount of conflict and tension during the meetings,” she says. “I knew there was a lot more to the process than meets the eye, so I began to examine how teams build trust in the face of different kinds of threats, such as status, role, and gender.”

When Williams came to the college in the fall of 2016, she began working with student teams in the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory, well before her official start date.

Known as the BELL, the business incubator connects students with the resources to launch a startup and grow it into a sustainable business. Students have access to a collaborative workspace, networking, funding opportunities, and now, one-on-one mentoring from Williams, whose research can help them build successful, entrepreneurial businesses.

Williams works as a coach with teams participating in the Iowa Startup Games. This John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center competition brings together UI students who pitch their business startup ideas and spend several days working with peers to bring them into reality.

“When I work with these teams, I might give a lecture about listening. It’s those interpersonal skills that allow people to negotiate with their team members, their mentors, or their funders,” she says.

“Many times when we look at entrepreneurship, we’re focusing on marketing, business planning, business development, and design. All are critical, but if you can’t keep your team together, you won’t have a successful company.”

Much of Williams’ research could be valuable to other Iowa startups, she says, from analyzing the gender makeup of the leadership team to the leadership needs of entrepreneurial companies. Williams, with Deborah Ancona of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, created the Four Capabilities of Leadership Framework, a 360-degree survey that helps leaders improve four critical components of their leadership.

“When people are innovating, their leadership looks different from a stable corporation, because they’re constantly trying to drive innovation and solve big problems,” she says. “It’s an Elon Musk way of looking at the world — what do we need to do next?

“Startups can use this assessment to see where they differ on these innovation-related skills and how they can leverage that knowledge. Everyone is going to have to take a leadership role in some area. Using the results of the survey can help the team see what skills are needed to complete the team.

RONG SU: CREATING ORGANIZATION CULTURE FOR GENDER DIVERSITY

After winning the Math Olympiad in China while in high school, Rong Su went on to win a gold medal in the Physics Olympiad at the national level. However, she decided to take a sharp turn and study law.

“I was seriously considering going into physics, but my mind was calling me to do more interesting things. I wanted to study issues that humans encounter and that have an immediate impact on society. Studying law offered an intellectually stimulating path in that direction,” she recalls. “As a woman excelling in physics, I also began to take an interest in the problem of underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).”

Her specialties were labor law and employment discrimination. It was that background, combined with a strong interest in unraveling the reasons behind the lack of gender diversity in STEM that led her to get a Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Illinois. Su studies person-environment fit, the key factors that drive people’s career choices, and what organizations can do with those factors to attract, select, and retain the talent they need.

“Person-environment fit matters for gender diversity in organizations because people bring their own goals, values, and interests to the workplace. They thrive in environments that can meet these needs and provide a good fit,” she says. “If organizations are looking for ways to better attract women or increase diversity, they need to create a culture that accommodates those values and interests and promote the sense of fit.”

Person-environment fit, she says, is a great approach to simultaneously understand the two sides of the same coin and a way to bridge the often divided views on the debate of whether women are “pushed out” or “opt out” of certain occupations/positions.

“My research has shown that people-orientation is key. A people-oriented culture is one that values supportiveness and positive interpersonal relationships, as opposed to a culture that solely focuses on products and performance outcomes at the cost of personal connections. We can design jobs and workplaces to be more relational, in a sense, to foster these positive changes.”

Solid statistical methods are important to Su’s research, and it’s a subject she especially enjoys teaching to doctoral students in the Ph.D. seminars on measurement and meta-analysis.

“Fields like psychology and management are under attack for the lack of rigor compared to the natural sciences, so bringing in solid statistical methods to train people is important,” she says. “Having the opportunity to teach methods and statistics here, in addition to the great research synergy, is what drew me to Tippie. I’m excited to train graduate students, because they’re the next generation. What I teach them is going to be what they offer the field in the future.”

BETH LIVINGSTON: RESEARCH THAT MAKES A DIFFERENCE

For Beth Livingston, who grew up in Kentucky where University of Kentucky Wildcat Fever runs rampant, a love of sports first led her to undergraduate communication and marketing majors. As a member of the Sports Marketing Academy, she met representatives from major firms like Reebok and Daktronics, which produces large scoreboards.

Her hope was to one day own or manage a professional sports team. She never had a reason to believe she couldn’t do that—until she ran straight into gender stereotypes when she began looking for her first job. She soon realized the companies all thought she was best suited to sell fitness apparel to women.

“Representatives from Nike, NASCAR, or the NFL weren’t interested in me, unless I went into ticket sales,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was a victim of my gender, but it made me angry and motivated,” she says.

Envisioning she could make a change in corporate America, she enrolled in Kentucky’s MBA program. It was during this time when she learned she was more suited for academia and the life of a professor than a corporate executive.

“One of my professors gave me some research to read, and I was amazed that someone was investigating the very gender issues I was facing,” she says. “I realized at that moment that when research can accurately describe what’s happening in your life, it’s enlightening and empowering.”

Based on her recent experiences, Livingston began studying what causes women to enter or leave certain professions, but she also realized that to study the impact of gender, she would need to study families, motherhood, and even how men are negatively affected by gender stereotypes and expectations.

“Organizations think of these as women’s issues, so they become deprioritized,” Livingston says. “But we want all people to feel supported in their work, and company policies don’t always match up with their words.”

Livingston especially values translating her research into policies that will help organizations make changes. Through a large research project that is collecting data from two nationwide unions—one that represents lower wage retail workers and another representing construction workers and plumbers—she hopes to study those in the working class, a group often overlooked.

“We know a lot about white-collar, professional employees, but not as much about those working-class folks who work third-shift,” she says. “My research is trying to fill in that gap, which could be really useful to unions. They have realized they won’t be solvent to serve a younger generation of workers if they’re not listening to what people need. I hope my research can help them determine what their employees need, whether it may be paid sick leave or after-school care.”

It’s been nine years since she received her Ph.D., and she’s still researching these issues, “which is depressing,” she says, “because that means we haven’t come quite as far as I would hope we had. I would love to work myself out of a job—and I would retire happy because it would mean I had made a difference.”