Growing up in a black neighborhood of Chicago, Katherine W. Phillips was chosen in third grade to attend a nearly all-white magnet school. “I was introduced at a young age to diversity, to difference, to ignorance,” she later recalled.
The experience inspired a lifelong quest to delve into the specifics of how and why racially and ethnically diverse groups function differently than homogeneous ones. As a professor, most recently at Columbia Business School, she analyzed the ways that organizations, especially in their workplaces, can maximize the benefits of hiring employees with different backgrounds.
“The first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult,” Professor Phillips wrote in a 2014 essay for Scientific American. Diversity often provokes discomfort, conflict and more challenging interactions, she acknowledged.
But that friction frequently leads to better outcomes, as she demonstrated through experiments and groundbreaking empirical research. People in diverse groups work harder, share information more broadly and consider a wider range of views than those of just one race, culture or gender, she found.
In her research, Professor Phillips, who died of breast cancer on Jan. 15 at 47, often zoomed in on workers’ individual attributes and the complicated, sometimes surprising ways they can influence the actions and impressions of others.
Examining the effects of black women’s hairstyle choices on perceptions of their professionalism, for example, she and her co-authors found that black participants in the study reacted more negatively to Afrocentric hairstyles than white participants did. Members of marginalized groups, the authors suggested, feel pressure to “police each other” to conform to their notions of acceptable behavior.
Another project found that social gatherings like office holiday parties, which can often feel mandatory, can backfire and cause lasting fractures among racially diverse groups. Professor Phillips and her collaborators concluded that giving employees a choice in how much they socialize with their co-workers and share personal information can be more beneficial than forced mingling.
Katherine Williams was born in Chicago on March 4, 1972, the youngest of six children of Adolph Williams, a medical technician at St. Bernard Hospital in that city, and Amelia (Rogers) Williams, who worked various jobs.
Katherine Williams graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in psychology and earned her doctorate in business from Stanford, where she met her future husband, Damon J. Phillips, in 1999.
Her interactions as a young student in Chicago were “a very formative experience” for her professional life, said Mr. Phillips, who is the Lambert Family professor of social enterprise at Columbia’s business school.
“She was the product of an attempt by policymakers to create a more diverse educational setting,” he said. “It became central to her thinking about all of the effects of those kinds of efforts.”
Professor Phillips joined the faculty at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and in 2006 became the first black woman to receive tenure there. She went on to achieve the same distinction at the Columbia Business School after moving there in 2011, according to colleagues.
She served as a senior vice dean of the school and was most recently its Reuben Mark professor of organizational character and the director of its Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics.
Professor Phillips frequently spoke at corporate gatherings and shared her findings through workshops and presentations at companies, including Black Rock, Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs, Google and JP Morgan Chase. She mentored widely, winning an award for mentoring last year from the Academy of Management, in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., and often teamed up with others in her field.
“The vast majority of her publications are collaborations, which in itself speaks volumes,” said Denise Loyd, an associate professor at the Gies College of Business at University of Illinois and one of Professor Phillips’s regular co-authors.
Along with her husband, who confirmed the death, Professor Phillips is survived by their daughters, Kinara and Amali; her parents; her sisters, Natalie Morrow, Ethel Rogers and Angelia Williams; and her brothers, Adolph and Eric Williams.
In a videotaped talk at Columbia in 2015, Professor Phillips spoke of her background in straddling social groups in Chicago and as a college track and field athlete. “My life in the middle led me to a question: What small change can we make as individuals to capture the benefits of diversity?” she said.
The answer she arrived at was to fight the impulse to seek out commonalties with those we encounter and instead “embrace your differences” by talking about contrasting life experiences.
“The environment you will create will be one where difference is normal,” she said in the talk. “If you create that kind of environment in your organizations, in your schools, in your families, you will find that the value of diversity is there for you to capture.”
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