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Female Professors at HBS Series: Katie Baldiga Coffman

Loujaine AlMoallim (MBA ’24) interviews Katie Baldiga Coffman, Piramal Associate Professor of Business Administration in the Negotiations, Organizations & Markets unit, about her personal journey, her time at HBS, and her advice for HBS leaders.

Can you briefly tell us about your journey that got you to where you are today?

I always loved learning and teaching, from playing "school" with my younger sister as a little kid through diving into a little bit of everything as an undergraduate at a liberal arts school. I was fortunate to have amazing mentors and role models at Williams College; they made me realize that an academic career was exactly what I wanted. After graduating, I went straight into a Ph.D. economics program at Harvard, where I continued to benefit from close relationships with brilliant, kind faculty members who helped me believe that I could thrive as a teacher and researcher. I realized that I could use the methods of economics to investigate questions I was passionate about, digging into the drivers of gender gaps and studying how to address them. After spending four awesome years at the Economics department at Ohio State, I was thrilled to come back home and join Harvard Business School. It has been the perfect place to grow as a teacher and researcher.

How has your teaching experience been at HBS so far? What do you like most about the case method and classroom experience?

Teaching at HBS has been a blast. My favorite part is the energy in the classroom –so many smart, funny, thoughtful people coming together to learn and engage. I love developing a relationship with each class, and it always surprises me just how unique each group is. In teaching negotiations, I really appreciate the chance to see my students grow over the course of the semester, both in terms of their skills and their confidence.

Your research focuses on managerial decision-making considering gender stereotypes. Could you give us a summary of research and why is it important to keep these potential biases in mind when making decisions?

My work focuses on biased beliefs: the ways in which the beliefs we hold are distorted by stereotypes. Importantly, these stereotypes not only bias the beliefs that individuals hold about others, but also the beliefs they hold about themselves. My research documents how these biased beliefs give rise to missed opportunities, and it designs and tests policies aimed at mitigating them.

Much of my work is related to the observation that good ideas and good candidates are only valuable when they are put forward. A student who is unsure of an answer on a test can only answer correctly if she is willing to submit her best guess rather than skip the question. An expert can only improve a corporate board’s decision if she is willing to speak up with her opinion about the best path forward. A firm can only hire the best candidate if she applies for the opening. Thus, being willing to assert one’s self and one’s ideas, particularly in the face of uncertainty, is a critical factor in determining outcomes at the individual, team, and firm level. My work has investigated the ways in which gender stereotypes, through their influence on beliefs about our own talents, lead to missed opportunities across these domains.

One critical question is what managers and leaders can do to limit these missed opportunities. Importantly, simply being aware of these biases is likely not enough to mitigate them. Instead, managers need to think critically about how these biases manifest in their organization and then take steps to build processes that reduce their impact. This evidence-based approach can be thought of as attempting to "change the system" rather than "change the people."

What recommendations would you give current and future HBS leaders when it comes to advising and mentoring in their position?

For me, it has been a huge source of joy over my career. Looking back, I know how critical it was to have people that believed in me, even in moments where I didn't necessarily have a huge amount of confidence in myself. Having the chance now to plant those seeds of confidence in others is something I really appreciate. For me, I've found that my time spent advising and mentoring is well worth it, in terms of the energy and happiness it brings me. I'd also just encourage folks to cast a wide net in connecting with mentees. Often we are drawn to people we view as similar to ourselves, leading to homophily in these types of networks and disadvantaging under-represented groups. Check in every so often on "your circle" – who is represented, and who is not?

Throughout your journey, what is the greatest lesson that you believe you learned and what is one piece of advice you would give people reading this?

It's all about people! Mentors, peers, co-authors, students, spouses, parents, friends – they are the reason I have been able to build this career that I love and the reason I continue to enjoy it. So, I guess my one piece of advice would be to find the path where you are surrounded by people that support and inspire you.

Loujaine (MBA ’24) is a Saudi Arabian who spent most of her formative years in Canada. After completing her undergraduate degree at McGill University majoring in International Management, she moved back to Saudi Arabia and worked in Consulting.

Katherine Coffman is the Piramal Associate Professor of Business Administration in the Negotiations, Organizations & Markets unit. In her research, Professor Coffman uses experimental methods to study individual, team, and managerial decision making, with a focus on the role of gender stereotypes in shaping beliefs.

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