How do stereotypes influence human behavior and the workplace? Extensive research by Ambika Prasad, Ph.D., a lecturer at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University, is shedding light on stereotyping and helping inspire wider acceptance of minorities in the workplace.
Growing up in the Himalayan ranges of Dehradun, as well as spending time in Lucknow, Prasad's Indian upbringing gave her a deep insight into the importance of social identities. By focusing on gender, caste, and region in her research and applying her professional experience, she has is creating a better understanding of the subtle nature of human interactions.
Prasad's pursuit of the curious mind
After earning her undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology, Prasad worked as the Deputy Commissioner in the Indian Revenue Service, which she found meaningful but lacking in enough space to grow. She soon realized she wanted to learn more and decided to pursue her passion for behavioural studies.
"I knew that my calling was in psychology, so I proceeded to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology. I completed my post-doc research in organizational behavior, and soon after, I transitioned into academics. I love my work because it allows me to learn, interact with curious minds and gives me the flexibility to pursue diverse interests, both professional and personal."
Since relocating to the U.S. and joining the faculty at Tulane, Prasad has made a tremendous impact on the understanding of individuals in organizational settings.
For example, her two main fields of study—organizational behavior and leadership as well as human resource management both involve personal interactions, positive and negative. "The topic of my Ph.D. research was stereotype threat. This idea delves into the impact of negative stereotypes on groups that are targets of these stereotypes. I find this premise fascinating, especially from the perspective of minorities," explains Prasad.
"Another favorite field of study for me is the stereotype content model, which articulates the two broad dimensions along which we stereotype others. These dimensions being competence (do we see the other groups as smart?) and warmth (do we trust the other groups?)."
Prasad is slated to present her latest research findings on this model, as applicable to India, at the SCOS Conference (Copenhagen Business School) in July of this year. This research also examines the relationship between caste and performance evaluation in India.
Talking about the Workplace
"The workplace can be an impersonal subject to talk about. However, if we add individuals to the mix—as active components with their social and mental attitudes—then the study of the workplace becomes alive and intriguing," Prasad shares.
As a professor, this dynamism of humans at work is the passion driver for Prasad's career.
"The facet of student interaction also inspires me. I am constantly impressed by the sensitivity and the intellectual curiosity of students."
That said, Prasad still wants to continue her research on diversity.
"While this research is fairly advanced in the West, in Indian contexts, there are major areas that remain to be studied. I would like to bring in dynamics of gender, caste, rural/urban status within the realm of the workplace. This will be the major focus of my professional goals."
Prasad reflects on such diversity themes in career advice for her students.
"When I talk about diversity themes in class or, for example, about the negative stereotypes faced by women leaders, I see a lot of women nodding their heads. Even for a larger audience, there is an instant connection that people feel with subjects like stereotyping. The field of diversity keeps us honest and draws us in. I can see that many girls will find working in this area relevant and satisfying."
"They can either be academicians or consultants or do a little bit of both. While I focus on diversity, there is a wide array of fields that they can specialize in: selection, performance management, teams, etc. The key lies in perseverance, passion for your research and the honing of one’s communication skills. Overall, as a life skill, I encourage young girls to develop a diverse set of competencies, interests and to be well-informed."
On the Horizon
Prasad keeps herself busy with plenty of community engagement when not busy with scholastic endeavors.
"Occasionally, I am asked by local community organizations to present a talk or a workshop on implicit biases, the nature of privilege, diverse teams, leadership, etc. I plan to stay engaged in this sphere as well. I am also a proud Posse mentor of an astonishing cohort of 10 amazing scholars at Tulane. This fall, they will be seniors and I am so excited to see them graduate."
Recently, Prasad has taken the first steps towards a social-entrepreneurial initiative. She plans to work with small, rural artisans in India and create an online retail platform for their handicrafts. Throughout the coming year, she hopes to bring this project to fruition.
On a personal level, Prasad is a mother and world traveller who enjoys immersing herself in art, spending time at home with her family, and listening to music.
"While my work validates me intellectually, the food for my soul is my family. My two sons, aged 18 and 12, have made me a better and a more patient person. As a family, we love to travel. Our adventures include traversing Hawaii’s Big Island, California Zephyr train ride from San Francisco to Denver, fishing in the backwaters of Kerala. I think travelling together is the best way for a family to bond."
"And I love spending time at home—my getaway. Taking care of the house like arranging flowers, listening to music, reading—they all comfort my creativity. I am also a docent at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and give public tours there. In the last few years, since my association with NOMA, I have enjoyed learning about art history and genres."
Prasad also shared the her appreciation for the people who support her endeavors.
"I consider my father a modern individual who taught me the value of reading, introspection and will-power. My mother, through her actions, demonstrates the power of resilience and quiet intellect. My husband has been a true friend and companion, an equal stakeholder in my growth."