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Executive PhD student Kelly Watson researches gender equity in the workplace

Kelly Watson

Of all jobs lost in December 2020, 100% belonged to women. This profound job loss statistic didn’t surprise Kelly Watson, a Daniels College of Business Executive PhD student. As an organizational diversity and inclusion consultant, researcher, educator and book author, Watson has seen this talent crisis looming for 20 years.

She is co-author of the books “The Orange Line: A Woman’s Guide to Integrating Career, Family, and Life” and “The Next Smart Step: How to Overcome Gender Stereotypes and Build a Stronger Organization.”

After earning her MBA as a working mom, Watson noticed women leaving the workforce in droves to manage their family obligations. She wanted to get involved—but not by advocating for better maternity leave policies. She didn’t see this as a human resources issue; instead, it was a threat to businesses’ bottom line. Research shows that fewer women and people of color in the workforce means less success for everyone.

“If you take advantage of policy, you end up on the mommy track and you end up not doing as well in your career,” Watson said. “Impacting the P&L—making business more profitable—that’s where stuff changes.”

In her day job as an operations and organizational development consultant and managing partner at Orange Grove Consulting, Watson has designed women’s leadership and inclusion curricula for clients such as Raytheon, Needham Bank and Skillsoft.

She set out to conduct a qualitative research study with her colleague, Jodi Detjen, for a presentation. Instead, Watson and Detjen’s 118 interviews with college-educated women grew into “The Orange Line,” which was published in 2012.

The book sought to answer why women struggle with work-life balance and have not yet achieved equality within leadership positions. The answer was surprising: women were holding themselves back through outdated and self-limiting beliefs about their roles at work and at home.

“There are all these assumptions that go unquestioned that women just buy into, like, ‘we have to be the primary parent and we have to do all the work, while dad just helps,’” Watson said. “And that everything we do has to be done perfectly. The more we buy into them, the more they become barriers for us.”

The solution lies in women’s empowerment, they outlined in the book, including a call for women to reclaim their own power, challenge the rules out loud and give each other permission to not be perfect.

“Because our mothers had opened up all these doors, we were expected to have two full-time jobs and to be perfect in both spaces,” Watson said. “That’s a really dangerous message. Let’s think about how we role model that to the next generation because that’s not healthy.”

As they continued their women’s leadership development work, Watson and her co-author realized companies didn’t know what to do about the organizational barriers that were still present despite women leaning in.

Enter their second book, “The Next Smart Step,” which was published in September 2020 and provides real solutions that organizational leaders can implement to shift gender inequality in the workplace.

“Empowering women empowers everyone. Women with confidence, equal pay and leadership opportunity enrich workplace culture and help the whole organization,” the book description reads. Gender equity is not only the right thing to do—it makes life better, workplace culture more diverse, opportunity more widely available and organizations more successful.”

After joining Loyola Marymount University as an adjunct professor in the Executive MBA program, Watson realized advanced research tools and increased credibility would help elevate her research about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. This led her to Daniels’ Executive PhD program.

For her dissertation, she plans to research the quantification of diversity and inclusion leadership skills—which are needed but have not previously been taught or required among leaders—to measure a baseline and identify opportunities for development.

“Most people have absolutely no experience outside of their own racial group, outside of their own age group, outside of their gender identity. You could rise all the way to the top of an organization and not have any clue how to lead a diverse team or be inclusive and then all of a sudden, now we’re holding people accountable,” she said. “It’s more than just, ‘we need to hire people.’ It’s how you include people’s information and ideas and how you create an environment that isn’t hostile on the team.”

“I think there’s some good groundwork being laid in terms of things like cultural intelligence and emotional intelligence, so I think it’s not that far to extend it to diversity and inclusion intelligence as a skill,” she continued. “There’s a massive need for this.”

Ali Besharat, associate professor of marketing and faculty member in Daniels’ Executive PhD program, agreed.

“One of the pressing topics for organizations in the U.S. is equipping leaders with the necessary skills to promote and maintain diversity across teams,” he said. “Kelly’s research extends current knowledge and offers rigorous and practical applications for this relevant and timely topic in the field of business.”

Just as the deterioration of jobs held by women during the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t surprise Watson, she also saw the writing on the wall for the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements and doesn’t think they will be the last unless things change.

“The good news is that the skills and methodologies we’re promoting are just basically good leadership and good change management so there’s nothing new—people just need to do it if they want to include everyone,” she said. “We shouldn’t wait until we have an explosion of an issue to be implementing these practices. If we can do that, then we won’t have out-groups emerge as being exploited and underrepresented in the workforce.”

Watson’s advice on the next best step is the same for individual women and for leaders: “Once you understand that your choice is limited only by a flawed assumption, reframe the assumption and move forward.”

“For women, you’ve got a set of rules for femininity: being able to do it all without help, look good and be nice. With diversity, my favorite is, ‘we don’t have any people of color because there are no people of color in our industry.’ It’s absolute garbage,” Watson explained. “When you start with those assumptions, then your solutions are very limited. Unpack the assumption, reframe it and open up the possibilities. It’s behavioral theory 101.”