Rachel D. Arnett
“Rachel is an emerging star at Wharton. Her research breaks new ground on how the expression of rich cultural identities can promote inclusive behavior at work, which advances prior work that assumes that people should conceal their cultural identities at work. In the classroom, she draws on her research, as well as others, to equip students to understand how negotiations are vital to their success, both in terms of the offers they receive from employers but also the relationships they cultivate. Her students value her competence and reliability as a professor, which I think is her superpower in the classroom.” – Samir Nurmohamed
Rachel D. Arnett, 37, is Assistant Professor of Management of Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Arnett works in Wharton’s Organizational Behavior subgroup with the Management Department and specializes in diversity, identity, inclusion, intergroup relations, and intersectionality.
She conducts her research using a combination of laboratory experiments, surveys, and qualitative data. She has partnered with multiple organizations that are interested in advancing DEI, including conducting field experiments, employee surveys, and in-depth interviews. She is a four-time recipient of the Wharton Teaching Excellence Award.
“Many students are intimidated by negotiations because they associate it with conflict and aggression. I empower my students to think of negotiation as a superpower that can be used for good, including cultivating trusting relationships where all parties feel valued and overcoming bias and inequity,” Arnett says. “I equip students with knowledge and skills, but also tackle psychological barriers like ‘is it safe to advocate for myself?’ or ‘is this going to harm my relationships?’ I coach students on how to overcome these doubts, often dismantling deeply-ingrained ideas from society about what they are worth, what types of behaviors are appropriate for people like them, or whether negotiations really need to be zero-sum.”
At current institution since what year? 2017
- Ph.D., Organizational Behavior (Psychology Track), Harvard University
- MA, Psychology, Harvard University
- BA, University of Pennsylvania
List of MBA courses you currently teach: Negotiations
TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR
I feel very fortunate to have this job. I get to research topics that I love, work with phenomenal colleagues and Ph.D. students, and teach students who are extremely bright and dedicated to their own development. One of my favorite parts of my job is sharing research insights with others and seeing the impact it can have on their understanding of their world and how they approach their jobs and their lives.
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… Growing up, I knew nothing about academia or being a business school professor, but I have many childhood memories of my dad pondering the “human condition” and my mom helping me navigate race and identity as a biracial child on the south side of Chicago. That set the groundwork for an interest in psychology and diversity. I studied consumer psychology in college and took a job in brand strategy after graduation.
That job helped me realize that I love creatively presenting ideas and guiding people with data, but I didn’t get a sense of my true passion until I followed a hunch and interviewed for a part-time position as a Research Assistant in the Psychology department at NYU. I’ll never forget that day. During that interview, I felt in my bones that I had been preparing my whole life for a job like this. After starting my position, someone pointed out that a lot of my ideas pertained to the workplace. It was then that I discovered that faculty in the field of Organizational Behavior apply psychological principles to understand how people navigate the complexities of things like identity, diversity, and relationships at work. This, I knew, was the job for me.
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? My research is focused on pathways to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. A lot of my work examines the challenges and opportunities people face when navigating sources of difference, including identity-based differences. For instance, my work challenges the assumption that identity-based differences are a source of division or conflict at work. This is especially notable for people of color, who often want to share authentic parts of their background but feel forced to suppress their identities to protect their careers. In my work, I show that when people of color open up about their identities in rich and meaningful ways – sharing insights into their thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to their backgrounds – their coworkers respond with more – not less – inclusive behavior toward them. This provides promising evidence that people of color can discuss aspects of their cultural backgrounds that are of personal importance while elevating – rather than sacrificing – their professional opportunities and relationships.
If I weren’t a business school professor… Growing up, my grandmother would take me to see Alvin Ailey performances and she also helped me take up dance as a teenager. I’ve always loved contemporary dance as a form of artistic expression and have sometimes imagined an “alternative self” as an Alvin Ailey dancer.
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? Many students are intimidated by negotiations because they associate it with conflict and aggression. I empower my students to think of negotiation as a superpower that can be used for good, including cultivating trusting relationships where all parties feel valued and overcoming bias and inequity. I equip students with knowledge and skills, but also tackle psychological barriers like “is it safe to advocate for myself?” or “is this going to harm my relationships?” I coach students on how to overcome these doubts, often dismantling deeply-ingrained ideas from society about what they are worth, what types of behaviors are appropriate for people like them, or whether negotiations really need to be zero sum. More broadly, growing as a negotiator often means confronting one’s insecurities and moving outside one’s comfort zone. I try to shepherd students through this journey by showing them how much I care about them and believe in them.
One word that describes my first time teaching: Rewarding – I’m an extrovert who loves presenting to, connecting with students, and watching them grow.
Professor I most admire and why: Robin Ely and Laura Morgan Robert’s work on diversity, racial identity, and gender played a pivotal role in my decision to apply to the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard so I think their research is especially imprinted on me. The two of them have a knack for taking really complex issues and illuminating them in a way that is deeply insightful for scholarship and extremely relevant to practice. When I read Robin’s research, I thought – I love her ideas, I have to apply to work with her. When I read Laura’s work, I reached out to her and basically said – I want to be like you, please help me decide what PhD program can help me follow in your footsteps. She told me to go to Harvard and I accepted my offer there that same day. Since then, I have come to admire and draw upon the work of many others – there are too many to count but several of them are people that I’m thankful to consider mentors.
TEACHING MBA STUDENTS
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? Teaching negotiations to business school students is a lot of fun. They get really into the material and value the ways in which the lessons from the course can help them in their careers and their lives more broadly. I’ve also just met so many students who are honestly good people and care about making a difference in the world. That both inspires me and makes me feel very proud.
What is most challenging? I always say that as a professor you have to be good at so many opposing skills. You have to swap between doing research on your computer for hours and being a super engaging presenter to an audience; having good writing skills and good analytical skills; being someone who can work alone successfully and work effectively in a team of collaborators; being someone who can generate big picture ideas and also execute all the small details to get them from start to finish. Sometimes it boggles my mind that all these opposing skills are part of the same job description. You have to learn how to play to your strengths and continually work on your weaknesses.
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Engaged – I love it when students are excited to learn.
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Absent
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Fair, constructive, and encouraging.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies? I’m an extrovert so I just love spending time catching up with people over dinner, drinks, or a phone call. But I also love travel (it’s my way to rejuvenate) and playing cards (bid whist is my favorite).
How will you spend your summer? Mostly doing research – I have a lot of exciting projects I’m working on. However, I’m hoping that my husband, daughter, and I will get to take a trip somewhere international.
Favorite place(s) to vacation: Barcelona, Santorini, Bahamas.
Favorite book(s): Becoming by Michelle Obama
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal (Shonda Rhimes holds the keys to my heart, ha!). I love the diverse casting and the complex relationships between the characters. Christina Yang and Olivia Pope are my all-time favorites.
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? I love R&B, pop, hip hop, alternative rock, and singer / songwriters. My all-time favorite song is Rise Up by Andra Day. It can elevate my mood no matter what I’m going through.
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Ways that students can improve the local communities around their universities, including pathways to leadership roles in those communities after graduation.
In my opinion, companies, and organizations today need to do a better job at… Not just supporting DEI in theory but also implementing change in practice. This includes getting constant feedback about how to improve, even when things are going well.
I’m grateful for… My family – my husband, daughter, mom, dad, grandmother, siblings, aunts, uncles, and stepdad. I owe so much of who I am and what I’ve achieved to them believing in me and providing me the foundation for all that I do. My mentors from Harvard (Kathleen McGinn, Robin Ely, Lakshmi Ramarajan, Jim Sidanius), Wharton (Nancy Rothbard, Drew Carton, Sigal Barsade, Adam Grant), and the Ph.D. Project (Patricia Hewlin, Kathy Phillips, Laura Morgan Roberts, just to name a few), and beyond – the guidance they have shared along my academic journey has been invaluable. And my friends and loved ones who have not only been there to cheer me on when I succeed but also pull me up when I need it most. To all of you – thank you.
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