Jamillah Bowman Williams, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, seeks to understand the gap between what people say they believe and what they do. Nowhere is this more evident than in the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues in the workplace and, in particular, how to achieve more equitable outcomes. In a recent paper, Bowman Williams and her coauthor Jonathan Cox explain, “Our findings reveal a disconnect between the espoused beliefs about the importance of diversity and corresponding actions to advance diversity, which we identify as a principle-practice gap …” Using survey data involving hypothetical workplace scenarios to prompt participant reflection, the coauthors’ research reveals the disconnect between how people talk about diversity and what action they would take when presented with the chance to actually advance diversity in professional settings.

Bowman Williams began investigating social psychology and the policy of diversity during her Ph.D. in sociology at Stanford. She has always been interested in understanding and solving complex social problems—difficult issues like systemic inequality. A somewhat circuitous path through various studies and degree programs has served her well, equipping her with a background in history, theory, psychology, and a variety of methodological approaches as she has pushed for more equitable institutions—and a more equitable world. In addition to being a professor at Georgetown, she also directs the school’s first Workers’ Rights Institute.

While most of Jamillah Bowman Williams’ classmates were focused on “bottom lines and profit margins,” she was always more interested in the “social dynamics in the workplace.”

For the last year, she has been in residence at Harvard Business School as a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society. While Bowman Williams teaches at a law school and is a trained socio-legal scholar, this isn’t her first time at a business school. She attended Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business as an undergraduate. However, she says that while most of her classmates were focused on “bottom lines and profit margins,” she was always more interested in the “social dynamics in the workplace.” It was perhaps no surprise that rather than join the business world after graduation, she went on to get her master’s in higher education from the University of Michigan, where her interest was again drawn to the social dynamics in institutional settings, this time within academia. It was little surprise, therefore, that she decided to go to Stanford to pursue a doctorate in sociology. Her dissertation, “Status Processes and Organizational Inequality: The Social Psychology of Inclusion,” wasn’t about bottom lines or profit margins. Instead it harkened back to the social dynamics of the workplace that she first became engaged with as an undergraduate business student.

While at Stanford, Bowman Williams learned how to conduct the rigorous empirical work that she is now known for. Yet, while she became a leader in the use of mixed methods research—surveys, behavioral experiments, modeling, interviewing—she also began to ask herself, “Who’s going to understand this academic jargon? Who’s going to read these journals?” Bowman Williams knew what she was doing—and revealing with empirical rigor—was important. But she also wanted to effectuate real change and, as she puts it, “translate her research for the public.” She asked herself what business leaders might listen to—or better yet, adhere to—and she thought, “A lot of times, it’s when the law is involved.” So she enrolled at Stanford Law School, learning anti-discrimination law and policy and figuring out “how to help create solutions that pressure businesses to change and to take on some of the role of remedying or rectifying the social inequalities I was looking at in my research.” Bowman Williams goes on, “I’m very glad that I took that roundabout path of studying across disciplines because it helped me approach these very complex issues through an interdisciplinary lens. There are questions we can’t fully answer if we only look at business or law or sociology.”

Diving into the research

The core of Bowman Williams’s research focuses on outcomes and, in the case of her dissertation, why the business case for diversity does not work. One idea is that if there are more viewpoints in the room, the business will benefit (monetarily)—a belief that 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies seemingly communicate in their marketing materials, according to other research. Bowman Williams’s research takes this belief head-on, arguing that it doesn’t work—and indeed may have detrimental impacts. She writes in her dissertation:

Despite the perceived legitimacy of profit-based rationales for diversity endorsed by Corporate America, results indicate that a “business case” for diversity elicited more negative behavior toward minority group members and a weaker value of diversity and inclusion than rationales emphasizing antidiscrimination law.

While Bowman Williams’s research illustrates the perverse effects of the business case for diversity on diversity and inclusion, it also revealed what she calls “an especially surprising experimental finding”: the “legal compliance case” seems to be more effective. She writes, “As a legitimate and authoritative social institution with historical, political, and moral grounding, civil rights law appears to have a normative influence that other strategies do not.”

A variety of factors further elucidate why the business case fails. In “The New Principle-Practice Gap,” for instance, she describes “diversity ideology” as one phenomenon that perpetuates the status quo, saying it “provides the logical tools by which individuals and organizations can present themselves as supporters of equity and inclusivity, without making any changes in behaviors and policies that result in lasting, impactful changes for people of color in the workplace.” To understand the gap between what people say they’ll do and what they actually do, Bowman Williams conducted surveys with more than 300 participants to understand their beliefs about diversity, then presented them with a scenario about a Black man’s prospects for a promotion and asked participants to make a recommendation. The work found that individuals who “acknowledge racism and other forms of inequality are most likely to take action” (a moral argument), whereas “individuals [who] support diversity because it is a rational means to a desired end (e.g., improved business outcomes)” do little to actualize what they say they believe.

I do experiments because when you’re trying to show something that’s counterintuitive, people don’t believe you.

Jamillah Bowman Williams, professor of law, Georgetown University Law Center

To further illustrate the problems with the business case for diversity, Bowman Williams has also conducted behavioral experiments. In one situation, white participants took part in an experiment they believed to be about “organizational decision-making.” Participants were randomly divided into three groups and asked to watch a workplace training video; one group, known as the “inclusive diversity” group, was shown a video with racially diverse graphics and information regarding the benefits of diversity. The other two participant groups acted as controls, with no discussion of diversity in the videos. One control group saw videos with no individuals; the other saw individuals who were mostly white, older, and male. Primed by these videos, participants were then asked to answer various questions, including solving a management task, providing performance reviews on various hypothetical team members, and selecting a group leader. In “Breaking Down Bias: Legal Mandates vs. Corporate Interests,” Bowman Williams explains that the experiment allowed her to “go beyond self-reported attitudes to tap the subtle behaviors that are more consistent with the forms of discrimination most common in the twenty-first century.”

This type of research is essential to Bowman Williams’s research portfolio. She says, “I do experiments because when you’re trying to show something that’s counterintuitive, people don’t believe you. They ask, ‘What if that’s just in that company or what if something else could have been making that effect, not what you say?” She often starts with experiments, but she is drawn to multifaceted research. Quantitative approaches, she says, can miss a lot of the context. She likes to link interviews and surveys with experiments. To understand why something is truly happening, she says, “you need to go talk to people.”

In practice

On the way to her current role at Georgetown, where she teaches employment law, employment discrimination, and contemporary bias and law, Bowman Williams also worked in practice. After law school she was an associate in the employment law practice of Paul Hastings, where she used her own DEI expertise to advise companies. That’s where, she says, she learned the importance of storytelling. “My law firm practice experience was critical because that’s where I first learned how important stories are in convincing people,” she reflects. “Experiments are the gold standard. And we need the stats and data. But they don’t tell the story in a compelling way. We need stories and narrative as well.”

Today, she continues to work with companies to help them improve their DEI practices—and hopefully their DEI outcomes. Her goal, she says, is to get organizations to bring the focus back to the humans. “It’s really about leaders humanizing their workforce and treating them well because it’s the right thing to do to be equitable, not because of the profit margin that it’s going to affect,” she says. She goes on, “The reality is so much of what happens in business and in corporations is about their profits. That’s not really thinking about people.”

If we have creativity and agency and take on a movement lawyering type of stance, then we can actually make a real difference in these things.

Jamillah Bowman Williams

Focusing on the human also helps where the law is lacking—or where the law isn’t the most useful tool to incite change. In “Beyond Sex-Plus: Acknowledging Black Women in Employment Law and Policy,” Bowman Williams documents the “challenges that Black women continue to face when bringing intersectional claims, despite high rates of discrimination and harassment.” She writes that while “many courts now recognize that Black women experience discrimination differently … judges have failed to develop a new analytic paradigm for addressing intersectional claims under Title VII.” But the legal profession can do more to counter the systems—sometimes the law, sometimes HR policy—that are doing nothing to advance society. She says, “We lawyers can do things that counter the momentum toward progress and equity. But we can also create solutions that are more helpful for humanity.”

She points to legal academia as one part of the problem. “We train people to think as a lawyer in a certain way. It’s all about the rule and the precedent and how to convince people based on things that might not be the best rules for humanity. But to change cultures, we need to get students to question those accepted methods.” Her advice?

Don’t just accept what the precedent is. Don’t accept the way that the judge analyzed that. Don’t accept the policy that the legislator just passed. Think outside of the box. Be creative. Push against the status quo if you think it’s something that’s going to be harmful in the long run. I feel like if we have that type of creativity and that type of agency and take on a movement lawyering type of stance, then we can actually make a real difference in these things. It’s just we are trained to fit this certain mold that can run against social change in many ways, where we’re just reproducing more of the same problem that we’ve always had historically.

In her work, Bowman Williams continues to research, explain, and maybe even change the “social dynamics in the workplace” that so engrossed her as an undergraduate. That way, people “can thrive because they are both productive and fulfilled,” she says.