Faculty Spotlight: Gabrielle Adams’ Work Represents ‘the Best of What We Do at Batten’

Adams, whose latest research examines how sexism can be overlooked in the workplace, is the recipient of a 2022 Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Jefferson Scholars Foundation. 

Gabe Adams at the Batten School wins Jefferson Scholars Foundation Award
Batten Professor Gabe Adams is awarded the 2022 Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Jefferson Scholars Foundation. (Photo by Tom Cogill)

Gabrielle Adams’ fascination with how humans organize and coordinate started with her early experiences on sports teams, which later included a stint as a swim team coach and coordinating a collegiate intramural program. Although she eventually left sports behind when she started college, she delved into her fascination with, as she describes it, “how people interact with one another,” by studying organizational behavior.

Initially, Adams thought she wanted to become a sports psychologist. But at Colby College, her undergraduate alma mater, a professor pointed her in the direction of social psychology, which allowed her to combine her interest in ethics, social justice, and group decision-making. “I was amazed that there was this interdisciplinary field of behavioral science that is just fascinating in terms of the questions that it asks and the methods that it uses,” said Adams, now a Batten assistant professor of public policy and business administration, with a joint appointment in the Darden School of Business’s Leadership and Organizational Behavior area. 

At Batten, Adams’ research focuses on psychosocial inefficiencies, or, as she puts it: “how we can look at the exact same thing and have totally different perspectives on it.” Adams, who was named one of the 40 Best Business School Professors Under 40 by Poets & Quants, has become a beloved instructor during her five years at UVA, winning a UVA All-University Teaching Award in 2021. On April 21, she received an Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, which recognizes faculty members who have endeavored selflessly to instill in their students the virtues of scholarship and love of learning.

“Professor Adams is a star,” said Jay Shimshack, Batten associate dean for academic affairs and professor of public policy and economics. “Her research combines deep theoretical insights with sophisticated empirical testing and real-world impact. Her experiential teaching fosters hands-on learning in an inclusive and supportive environment. Professor Adams’ work represents the best of what we do at Batten; she generates new knowledge to help solve the world’s pressing problems and she educates students prepared to lead in a diverse and divided world.”

Adams’ research has been covered by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Most recently, Adams was part of a research team that examined an insidious way sexism can get ignored in workplace settings. In February, the team’s paper, “The ‘Equal-Opportunity Jerk’ Defense: Rudeness Can Obfuscate Gender Bias,” was published in the journal Psychological Science. 

The idea for the research bloomed out of a conversation between Adams and lead study author Peter Belmi, a Darden professor, about behavior they had witnessed: “There are people who are sexist [in the workplace] and yet observers say, ‘Well, they’re jerks toward men as well, so they can’t be sexist,” Adams said. Belmi and Adams did a little digging and discovered that that this argument was at the at the crux of Dotel v. Walmart Stores, Inc., a case argued before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2016. Although a Walmart supervisor told a female employee that “women [are] good for nothing,” the court found that because the supervisor was rude to both men and women, he was an “equal opportunity jerk,” and therefore no gender discrimination had occurred.

“We thought that it would be interesting to study this phenomenon empirically,” Adams said, “trying to understand how people are able to hide their sexism behind this veil of rudeness.”

For their paper, Belmi, Adams and Sora Jun of the University of Texas conducted several studies. The first involved collecting tweets written by former President Trump, some of which showed that he had been rude toward men, and some of which showed that he had been sexist toward women. The researchers then asked more than 2,000 study participants to rate how sexist each tweet was and how sexist President Trump was. In another study, the team gave study participants a scenario of a man behaving in a sexist way toward women in a workplace, and then also berating one or two interns who were male. In both instances, participants were decreasingly likely to identify the perpetrator as sexist when they saw evidence of him also being rude toward several men.

“People have a hard time seeing the rude perpetrator as sexist because they think he’s an equal-opportunity jerk—mistreating others in a way that is blind to their gender,” Adams said.

Adams, who sits on the boards of two organizations, said she hopes the study might help managers recognize sexist behavior as sexist, independent of whether a perpetrator is also rude toward men. “We need to train managers to actually truly identify sexism in the first place,” she said.

Adams’ passion for research is infectious, especially for student members of her Applied Public Policy and Leadership Experiments (APPLE) Lab. Maya Ewart, a UVA 2021 psychology alumna and a current Batten student (MPP ’22), worked as a research assistant at the lab for three years, contributing to research on subtraction neglect, third party punishment, and the #MeToo movement.

“Professor Adams is dedicated to her students’ well-being and success. At the Adams APPLE Lab, she built a space that fosters curiosity and creativity,” Ewart said. “She gave me the confidence to explore activities outside my wheelhouse, such as behavioral coding. Under Gabe’s tutelage, I grew as a researcher and critical thinker. Without her support and enthusiasm, I would not have applied or been accepted into the Batten Accelerated MPP program. No other professor has valued my voice or helped me grow the way Gabe has.”

Adams said she is humbled by the Award for Excellence in Teaching, and, perhaps rooted in her years of participation in sports, sees her accomplishments as a team effort. “It’s such an honor,” she said. “I am really proud of the work that my students have done, and I’m so grateful for my community of collaborators. I feel so fortunate to be at UVA and to be in the company of all these amazing researchers and scholars.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

Stay Up To Date with the Latest Batten News and Events