Diversity and Inclusion

“Small Wins” in Action: How Scholarship Can Affect Change

Shelley Correll

Scholarship can transform the real world. This powerful message underpinned the symposium on “Gender Equality in 2019: What Is it Going to Take to Get Us There?” in honor of Professor Shelley Correll’s ninth and final year as faculty director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. The event took place on Wednesday, May 22, 2019, at the Graduate School of Business’s Stanford Investor Commons.

Jonathan Levin, dean of the Graduate School of Business, called Correll’s work as director “revolutionary” in his introductory remarks. Levin said, “Shelley has been a pioneer in what is called translational social science.” The GSB, Levin explained, teaches students to “tackle tough issues in society.” He stressed how creating diverse and inclusive organizations is central to this aim.

photo of Sterling speaking

Changing the workplace to be more equitable and equal is at the heart of Correll’s scholarship and outreach. On doing this kind of work, Levin reflected, “It takes a lot of organizational leadership as well as scholarly knowledge. She has been a pioneer and a lot of people will follow. It is really exciting to see that happen here at Stanford.”

View Video of the Symposium here

To discuss the pernicious problem of gender inequality, Shelley Correll was joined by three other panelists: University of Michigan Sociology Professor Erin Cech, Stanford Business Professor Adina Sterling, and Stanford Sociology Professor David Pedulla. Topics included the state of gender equality today, the durability of inequality, and obstacles to change.

The panel began with an overview of the barriers to gender equality in 2019. Over the past 30 years, Correll explained, progress toward gender equality has stalled. Today, women account for only 23.7 percent of congressional seats, 8 percent of research university presidents, and 6.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs—of which only one is a woman of color. And, of course, the highest glass ceiling in the U.S.—the Oval Office—has yet to be shattered.

Correll recounted how in 1974, when Stanford Education Professor Myra Strober and a group of students founded what is now called the Clayman Institute, Strober had to promise that she would shut the Institute down as soon as gender equality was achieved. Alas, progress toward this goal has been slow, and the Clayman Institute remains open.

When Correll became director in 2010, she set the Institute’s thematic focus as “Moving Beyond the Stalled Gender Revolution.” Her agenda has been to advance equality through gender research.

Correll’s “smalls wins” theory of gender change is the hallmark of this mission. “Small wins” refers to a model for changing organizations. It involves working with managers at an organization to co-develop tools that address gender biases specific to that workplace. The tools create measurable improvements, which encourages greater buy-in from internal stakeholders and inspires more people to join on board. These concrete wins accumulate over time and lead to larger transformations in the organization.

photo of crowd applauding panelists

The symposium, both the panelists and in the audience, reflected the snowballing effect of “small wins.” Each panelist identified how their research was inspired by different major scholarly and applied contributions that Correll has made over the past 20 years. The panelists showed how impactful gender scholarship expands by creating a ripple effect.


First, Cech spoke about her research on self-expression, specifically the role of expressing one’s professional interests as “passions.” Cech’s study was inspired by Correll’s work in the 2000s on how gender socialization patterns what people aspire to in their careers, and this leads women and men to become clustered in specific fields, such as education and technology, respectively. Cech examines how the cultural expectation to have a passion for work shapes how students select a course of study and career path after school. Cech explained how self-expression, such as the notion that women become nurses because they enjoy caring for others, “helps to reproduce the gender-typing of these fields as male-dominated and female-dominated domains.” Yet, self-expression is understood as an individual or personal choice, such as the decision to go into engineering rather than healthcare. According to Cech, this focus on the individual makes it especially difficult to create change with policy solutions and social activism.

The second symposium topic may be more readily solved with policies to support working parents. Pedulla shared his research that builds on Correll’s concept of the “motherhood penalty”—the stigma faced by working mothers that leads to fewer opportunities and lower pay. To examine stigmas for unemployment and part-time work, Pedulla submitted job applications to hiring personnel. Each application was identical, except he alternated the gender of the applicants’ names as well as their employment history in part-time work and unemployment. He found that men were called back 4.8 percent of the time when their work histories included part-time time work and 4.2 percent after periods of unemployment, compared to 10.9 percent and 7.5 percent for women, respectively. Employers penalized men for not upholding the status of breadwinner.

Pedulla then shared these findings with the hiring personnel he studied. One explained the justification: “A woman probably has an excuse, and we expect her to come, like, full of baggage. Whereas a man we expect minimal baggage, so like, what is he doing with his free time?” Another said, “I think we’re just taught that men bring home the bacon and the women take care of the homes.”

The final panelist, Sterling, shared a study that directly builds on Correll’s “small wins” theory of creating change in the workplace. Women start out making less money; however, the start of their careers feature the most potential to affect the gender wage gap since initial salaries are the basis for future compensation. Sterling along with her co-author, Roberto Fernandez at MIT, investigated whether internships, a trial period of employment, improve the starting salaries of men and women MBA students who take jobs at the firm where they interned. She found that women and men received the same average starting salary after an internship, but not when they applied to a job without interning first. This suggests that women’s skills may be discounted in the interview process. Trail employment may be an effective tool for starting women and men off on an equal footing.

At the end of her talk, Sterling declared May 22 “Unstalled Day,” as she and the other panelists put on fuchsia pins that read “#unstalled 5.22.19.” Correll took the podium and said, “It has not stalled because we haven’t studied it,” remarking on the thorough research conducted by the panelists and other scholars in the audience.

photo of Padulla


Correll then proposed a blueprint for accelerating change based on her “small wins” research on two tech firms, one large and one midsize. In these interventions, the companies made their employee evaluation systems more robust. Supervisors changed their calibration meetings and score cards to be more systematic, specified and consistent. This narrowed the gender gaps in employee reviews at each firm. And these successes inspired managers at the firms to brainstorm how they could expand their impacts, such as by revising job ads to make the language more gender neutral.

To conclude, Correll outlined three “design principles” of creating tools to block bias. First, eliminate conditions that allow bias to flourish. Second, make managers a key part of the design. Third, foster a sense of responsibility and peer accountability.

It is through these principles that Correll has come to be viewed as a revolutionary in bridging scholarly research and real-world change. After the event, Pedulla remarked on how Correll has proven that “you can do the most theoretically cutting edge, empirically sophisticated social science scholarship that is transforming the way that sociologists think about work and gender, and, at the same time, have a massive influence on the way that inequality is getting addressed in concrete work organizations.” Correll bridges the gap between the academic “ivory tower” and the real world, with lasting impacts for both.

Echoing these sentiments, Sterling called Correll “a beacon of hope” for more impactful scholarship that addresses inequality in labor markets and organizations. She emphasized how Correll’s work will have a lasting impact and inspire future generations of scholars to become more oriented to changing social problems, around issues of gender, racial, and social class inequality.

Sterling said, “As impactful as she has been, her impact is only going to multiply because of the quality of her work.” When I asked what one idea Sterling hoped the audience would take away from the event, she said, “Be fearless.”

Sterling then elaborated, “I teach some of the best and brightest students in the world, and they relay stories after they graduate about how many women in their companies are leaving due to issues of inequity. It saddens me because it reminds me of the enormous work left for us to do. That’s why sometimes what we all need are people to look up to who are fearless, who will say the things that need to be said, who are willing to get to the truth at all costs. That’s what all of us get inspired by and that’s what Shelley is.”

Capturing this inspirational and long-lasting impact, Cech reflected on her time as a Clayman postdoctoral fellow from 2011-2012. Under Correll’s mentorship, she said, “She helped me, and my time at the Clayman Institute helped me, find my voice as a scholar but also as an expert in the field.” Cech gained the tools to be a public scholar who can help to affect change. She concluded, “Graduate school taught me to be a sociologist. The Clayman Institute taught me how to be a public servant.” Cech, Sterling and Pedulla are three examples of “small wins” in action.