Dr. Gwendolyn Combs, associate professor of management at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Business, helps build Nebraska by working to give voice to every individual employed at an organization. Her human resource career in the public and private sectors, including nearly 20 years at Nebraska Business, demonstrate her dedication to people and their value.
“The diversity, equity and inclusion domain has been a life’s passion,” said Combs. “It permeates a lot of what I do in terms of my research, teaching and service in the community. I embrace the concepts because I believe it will help society and institutions to be better.”
One of her lasting contributions to business students includes creating the Managing Diversity in Organizations (MNGT 365) course which she built from the ground-up. The initial thought was to develop a module that could be used in several courses. Due to the importance of the area, the final product was a semester-long class.
“I saw we didn’t really have a course committed to the topic. For our students, that was key to having a better understanding about any place they would go to work. They needed to have an understanding about the focus organizations put on diversity, equity and inclusion, and why the focus is there,” she said.
Combs explained that early in her career, organizations primarily looked at diversity and inclusion from a legal perspective in relation to affirmative action. Over time, she saw the focus expand.
“Organizations began to understand diversity and inclusion as an opportunity to capitalize on talent and strengths irrespective of race, gender, nationality, disabilities and other primary diversity dimensions. The movement spread quickly, looking at how a more diverse organization could be more effective in terms of products, services and the clients they serve. The emphasis shifted to get more people of difference in the organization because it made the organization better,” she said.
From that point, Combs began to emphasize it was more than just a numbers game, but really about giving voice to diverse populations in organizations to affect greater benefits for everyone. Through her research and consulting, she found a sense of belonging was vital to workplace success. It became much bigger than using diverse populations as a revolving door in the work force simply to add diversity.
“The concept of diversity and inclusion is one of relationships, and trying to make the organization a place where individuals feel they belong and can be more successful, which propels the organization’s success. It’s about working together to be better at inclusion which helps individuals contribute and increases retention,” she said.
Currently, Combs chairs the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of People of Color, as well as, serves on the diversity and inclusion subcommittee for the Nebraska 150 Commission. Dr. Dennis Duchon, E.J. Faulkner Professor of Management and chair of the Department of Management, believes Combs’ work is magnified through all three phases of her research, teaching and service.
“She is the go-to person in the area of service work at Nebraska when it comes to working on diversity and inclusion,” said Duchon. “She has developed a reputation for teaching our diversity class which has proved to be one of our most popular elective courses. Without her leadership in that area, Nebraska wouldn’t be nearly as featured in the discussion of diversity in the workplace as we are now.”
Combs encourages students to speak honestly in class whether they agree with the concepts she teaches or not. She believes openness leads to greater progress.
“I’m excited about where the university is now in terms of its thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion. I’ve seen a lot of stops and starts over the years, but at this particular juncture there appears to be more purposeful energy about it, which is exciting. There are a lot of opportunities ahead for Nebraska to grow and succeed based upon contributions of people with different ways of thinking and approaching life experiences. It can help propel us to higher levels of excellence for students, faculty and staff,” said Combs.