She Brings a Sociology Lens to the Baruch Business Faculty

March 15, 2022

Alumna Tsedale Melaku describes how her scholarship on race and gender in the workforce led her to the Baruch College faculty and shares career advice for current Ph.D. students.

Tsedale Melaku
Tsedale Melaku (courtesy of Tsedale Melaku)

Tsedale Melaku (Ph.D. ’16, Sociology) studies the ways race and gender affect advancement in traditionally white workplaces. Her research has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, and many other outlets, and she recently started as a tenure-track assistant professor at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business. Her first book, You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, began as her Graduate Center Ph.D. dissertation. The book highlights the barriers Black women face in recruitment, professional development, and advancement to partnership in elite corporate law firms.

Melaku spoke with the Graduate Center about what prompted her research, why she loves to teach, and what was most helpful to her when she started on the path to her Ph.D.

The Graduate Center: Congratulations on your new role! How has it felt to begin this new chapter?

Melaku: Having an opportunity to be at CUNY as a Black woman and to see the impact of being a Black woman in the front of the classroom of so many diverse students is just a wonderful feeling. It brings so much meaning for me. As a sociologist in a business school, I feel as though my work looking at the experiences of women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) in the workplace really fits nicely.

GC: What first drew you to CUNY?

Melaku: First of all, New York is just an amazing place. Growing up in New York City, I always wanted to stay here. I’m Ethiopian born, and my parents fled our country to come here, not only to give myself and my siblings opportunity, but also to empower us to do something in the future that we love. My experiences as a New Yorker really pushed me to think about the experiences of other people in this city, particularly those who have to deal with incredible inequality, and what that means in terms of what we can do to drive and push for change. I really wanted to embed myself in a community that not only sees me, but that values the contributions of all of its members.

GC: Your first book, and much of your research, focuses on inequities in the workplace. How did that become your area of focus?

Melaku: I worked as a paralegal at a law firm right out of college, and I quickly realized that for me, that was not the right path. But I also thought, I don’t see a lot of Black lawyers — and particularly Black women — here. That made me wonder: How many of us are actually out there? When I started my research, I started hearing Black women’s stories — their experiences with sexism, racism, code switching, how their hair or their appearance plays into how they’re perceived as competent or incompetent or qualified, or whether they’re perceived as diversity hires in ways that we would never question other people. I was so lucky, and incredibly grateful, to have been able to build those relationships with Black women who took a chance on a graduate student to share their stories, and I think their experiences can highlight a lot about the experiences of other marginalized groups.

GC: You’re working on a new book now, aren’t you?

Melaku: I am! I'm actually editing a book looking at workplace diversity and stratification, and really trying to pull from different disciplines to show not just the history around workplace diversity, equity, inclusion, and stratification but also some of the theoretical work that’s being done. A number of practitioners are contributing to show the practices they’ve seen and the frameworks that they’re using in the workplace to drive equity.

GC: What advice would you have given to yourself at the start of your Ph.D.?

Melaku: There’s so much I would tell myself, but really it comes down to this: You’ve got to find your people. It’s about your network of support, your community of support. That can be the faculty members who are supporting you and your ideas, who are going to be able to not only amplify your voice, but also challenge you in ways that you may not have thought possible. But it’s not only faculty, it can also be your peers. You just need to know, who is part of your community? Who is going to nudge you when you need it? Who’s going to hype you up when you need it? Who’s going to challenge you when you need it? You also have to love what you’re doing — not for anyone else, but really for you. If that’s driving you, and you’re able to find your people, that can really help you navigate the system. It makes it so much easier.

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