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Student Experience

Moving Forward Against the Odds

A conversation with WSB's Maria Triana about career advancement, minority women, and corporate boards

By Clare Becker

February 20, 2019

Maria Triana speaks during a panel presentation
Associate Professor Maria Triana speaks on women in leadership during the TEMPO Foundation Leadership Series held at the Wisconsin School of Business. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

As a researcher of diversity and discrimination in organizations, Maria Triana is no stranger to the challenges she examines in her work.

“My family is originally from Cuba and when Castro took over, we basically lost everything,” says Triana, an associate professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business. “I came to the United States with no English, no money, and no education. I grew up in that context of being very resource-poor but very happy to be in a free country with a lot of hope and optimism that things could get better if one works extremely hard. Mine is the story of a female minority immigrant.”

Triana is a co-author of Double Bind: African American, Asian, and Hispanic Women on Corporate Boards, a working paper written with Maria Goranova of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and Kira Kristal Reed of Syracuse University that looks at the lack of representation by minority women on corporate boards.

The study’s figures are undoubtedly bleak. Out of the S&P 500 firms, there were 4,300 male board directors in 2015. In that same year, Latina female directors held 27 board seat positions, Asian female directors held 45, and African American female directors held 110.

“The percentage of women on boards, of minorities on boards, it’s just moving at a snail’s pace,” says Triana, who received her MBA from the University of Arizona and worked in Silicon Valley before obtaining a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University in management and human resources with a minor in industrial organizational psychology. “It will change a fraction of a percent every year and that’s pretty much what we’ve seen over the last few decades.”

Moving forward against the odds

Triana’s hard-won experiences and diversity-focused research shed light on ways that professional women can keep moving forward in their careers, whether that means landing a corporate board position or simply securing that next promotion.

Hire with awareness. When hiring, conduct a candidate search that is as thorough, unrushed, and unbiased as possible. “It’s about ensuring that when you’re hiring or making promotion decisions, you’ve considered everyone who is available for that position regardless of personal characteristics,” Triana says. “Make sure that you’ve considered everybody who is available—including women, minority members, and majority members—so that nobody is being disadvantaged.”

Headshot of Maria Triana
Maria Triana is an associate professor of management and human resources

Be the mentor you never had. Mentorship doesn’t have to be a formalized relationship; it can be as simple as lending a hand or offering support to a colleague or someone you see struggling. For Triana, one of the challenges of coming from an underprivileged background was discovering that “I didn’t even know what I didn’t know,” she says. As a first-generation college student with no one to guide her, Triana remembers making one of the worst grades she’d ever gotten simply because she didn’t realize dropping a class was possible. After that, she started to assemble a network that could help her learn the ropes. “I realized from that moment on, I need to do this at every single place I go, but it was difficult,” she says. “There wasn’t—and still isn’t—this automatic kind of mentoring relationship.” Today, Triana reaches out to others. “When you see bright young promising people, be the mentor you never had.”

Move on to move up. If you’re fresh out of school, seek out companies that support diversity and inclusion, and join professional organizations and any mentoring program your current workplace offers. Watch for promising opportunities for advancement. “Use your network to go somewhere else,” Triana advises. “It is easy for women to get entrenched in a setting that doesn’t have their best interests in mind, or where organizational procedures keep female employees stagnant instead of giving them the opportunity to thrive and excel.”

Keep an open mind. Finally, in a world that skews toward disadvantaging women and other minorities, it’s easy to get cynical. Don’t judge based solely on the exterior, warns Triana. Incorporating diversity and inclusion is not about excluding any one group or gender; it’s an all-hands-on-deck endeavor. A male manager, for example, who champions his female employees can make a far better advocate than a female manager who only talks the talk.

Creating change

Triana’s new work on women and boards of directors pulls together cross-disciplinary research from many areas including gender and racial discrimination, corporations, and minority women and gender diversity. It incorporates theories from existing literature such as tokenism, double jeopardy, and critical mass.

In the theory of double jeopardy, for example, minority women are discriminated against twice over, first as a member of a gender minority group, and a second time as a member of a racial minority group. The paper’s statistics back it up: over the last 10 years, board seats vacated by white men have been filled primarily by white women first, and Asian women second.

“When you see bright young promising people, be the mentor you never had.”

–Associate Professor Maria Triana

Change on both an organizational and a corporate level needs to happen, but it may take some “political will,” Triana says. So far, California is the only state to move in that direction by passing a state law that requires at least one woman on a corporate board by 2019.

But the news is not all dismal. In one of the few silver linings of the study, the research shows that when women do attain board positions, they excel, unsurprisingly. “Women directors tend to be very diligent, very conscientious about their board roles, and are associated with better governance on those boards,” Triana says. “They care more about things like philanthropy and corporate social responsibility.”

Even though her research reveals a scarcity of women and minorities in executive board positions, Triana remains hopeful. “When I teach students, I see their desire for equality and inclusion, and I see men and women alike who are eager to challenge the status quo. I believe we’re on a path toward change, that real change is possible.”

About Maria Triana
Maria Triana is an associate professor in the Department of Management and Human Resources at the Wisconsin School of Business. She is the author of Managing Diversity in Organizations, published by Routledge, and the creator and instructor of the WSB course, Managing Diversity in Organizations. Her research focus includes diversity and discrimination in the workplace and organizational justice, and her work has been published in top management journals. Triana is a recipient of numerous research and teaching awards.

Featured in The New York Times
Read more about Maria Triana and other Wisconsin School of Business faculty in “3 Professors Shaping the Future of Business” in The New York Times.