Katherine Milkman is an assistant professor of operations and information management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, where she recently began to research race and gender discrimination.

Prof Milkman has a degree in operations research and financial engineering from Princeton University and a PhD from Harvard University’s joint programme in computer science and business.

In her spare time, Prof Milkman enjoys travelling, reading fiction and going to the gym.

1. Who are your business heroes?

My heroes – not all in business – are Katharine Graham, the publisher, J.K. Rowling, the author, Andre Agassi, the tennis player, Tina Fey, the actress and producer, and Jack Donaghy, a fictional character on the American NBC sitcom 30 Rock.

2. What would you do if you were dean for the day?

I would probably spend the day trying to gather as many data points about Wharton as possible. For instance, I would like to see every data point available about the student experience and then I would want to see the same information about our competitors. I’d like to use the numbers to figure out where we’re excelling and where we have the most room for improvement.

3. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

My tennis coach gave me some really excellent advice when I was a teenager. I had a truly stellar backhand (if I do say so myself) but I was never quite satisfied with my forehand. My priority during training was to spend the majority of my time trying to improve my weaker stroke. However, my coach told me I should spend 75 per cent of my time honing my greatest strength to develop it into an extraordinary asset, devoting only the remaining 25 per cent of my time to other parts of my game. It’s amazing how often counterintuitive advice turns out to be right on target.

4. What is your favourite business book?

Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

5. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of a study I conducted with two phenomenal collaborators, Modupe Akinola and Dolly Chugh, to measure levels of discrimination against women and minorities in academia. We wanted to know whether women and minorities interested in pursuing a doctoral degree received the same level of encouragement as Caucasian males. To find out, we sent emails to 6,548 professors at 260 universities across the US from prospective PhD students requesting a short informational meeting. The emails were all identical except for the name of the student sender, which we varied to signal the student’s gender and race.

6. What advice would you give to women in business?

Find a senior mentor – ideally one who is a woman with a lifestyle you can see yourself having someday – and find another woman at your level who you can talk with about work and crack the occasional gendered joke with. Try hard to find someone who you in no way see as a competitor (my research suggests there can be negative, competitive dynamics among women at the same career level who work on the same teams).

7. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

I consciously try to avoid letting male-dominated settings intimidate me. It’s natural to feel that you’re standing out like a sore thumb even before you’ve opened your mouth. However, assuming I have something to contribute, I don’t let myself take the “easy” route by sitting quietly in these situations.

8. What is your favourite memory of school?

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs Alfondre, was a strong personality. She used to ask my class to read the newspaper each day before coming to school and then we would spend the first hour every morning discussing current events. I remember during the primaries leading up to the 1992 presidential election arguing with Mrs Alfondre about the best Democratic candidate.

9. How do you deal with pressure?

I have a new Zen fountain in my office, which makes me feel like I’m at the spa when I get to work. A few people have told me it doesn’t fit my personality but that’s just why I need it! Occasionally, some of the visualisation techniques I learnt as a junior tennis player come in handy, eg imagine hitting the perfect serve and acing your opponent.

10. What are your future plans?

To keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully to write a few research papers that really improve the way we as a society think about tackling important problems like the underrepresentation of women and minorities in high-power societal positions; obesity; and under-saving.

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