Want diversity in your company? Here’s what leading B-school experts say you really need to do

BY Erik ShermanJune 01, 2022, 3:11 PM
Students during a class at Gleason Hall of the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, as seen in September 2021. (Photographer: Libby March—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Diversity is a major concern for corporations, whether they like it or not. Studies show that a vast majority of employees want to work for an employer that values diversity, equity, and inclusion, and yet, a nearly equal share of consumers feel let down by what they view to be slow progress on diversity and inclusion efforts.

Such frustrations about workplace diversity aren’t likely to go away, as approximately 44% of millennial Americans are minorities, compared with just 25% of baby boomers. Business needs new insights for leaders and business schools need to find answers. They have their own catching up to do, but there are institutions and faculty members making strides forward.

Business schools are shaking themselves awake

While business schools have made some strides on diversity—the Forté Foundation found in 2021 that for the first time more than half showed at least 40% female enrollment—they remain insular in many other ways. A recent paper from the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge concluded that business schools have picked specific types of diversity, like gender and country of origin, while ignoring others such as ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or religion.

But George Floyd’s murder in 2020 was a wakeup call.

While he’s proud of what the Malcolm Baldridge School of Business at Post University is currently doing with respect to diversity, Jeremi Bauer, dean of the school, admits: “We were not good at it prior to George Floyd.” Two days after the murder, Bauer called an all-faculty meeting and asked faculty of color to lead. “I’m comfortable knowing what I don’t know.”

An internal analysis at Baldridge showed the curriculum was “massively whitewashed,” focusing on white-owned and -run businesses, according to Bauer. Eighteen months of effort “produced a scaffolding of diversity, equity, and inclusion” that touched all areas of education. New faculty candidates were reviewed without identifying information to avoid unconscious bias.

Such introspection is happening at other business schools, as well.

“We don’t know everything,” says Stephanie Caban, chief diversity officer at Post University’s Baldridge Business School. “That’s why we have healthy conversations. Everyone has that ability to challenge that assumption. Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s important to listen in that moment.”

B-school faculty are teaching while learning

Business schools don’t have the luxury of taking a sabbatical to focus on improving diversity. However, faculty expertise doesn’t typically include the background they need to address diversity, inclusion, and similar issues in the classroom.

“Our faculty is not trained as Ph.D.s to talk about sensitive issues,” says Sevin Yeltekin, dean of the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester. That makes changes harder as professors must learn new ways to do so and adapt their teaching in the process.

Rather than concentrating on aggregate numbers or particular companies, for instance, professors need a “pedagogy of incorporating social, political, racial issues, and manage that in a classroom setting,” Yeltekin says, adding that “We would talk about aggregate numbers or a particular company, but putting an equity lens to it, looking at it demographically or other ways to highlight, looking at what we can do about it as managers is missing from a lot of curricula.” 

Professors must consider distributions of macroeconomic outcomes among different groups and ask hard questions. “Why does income look so skewed?” Yeltekin says, adding that labor outcomes and employment rates should be given similar consideration. “What are some policies that could be implemented?”

Start with objectives

Attempts at equity, starting in the 1960s, “were really about getting faces inside the institution,” says Martin Davidson, professor of business administration and global chief diversity officer at The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “It was straight up about targets, quotas, representation. There are limitations to that method. You change the number of people and four or five years later they’re gone.”

Instead, there needed to be longer-term objectives and “an overarching model of diversity and difference that allows leaders, MBAs, corporate leaders to think strategically about this,” Davidson says. Only then can an organization look more specifically about race or gender or any other aspect. In other words, don’t let the specific become the enemy of the bigger and, ironically, more inclusive issue and enable maintenance of the status quo.

Bring personal experience in

One of the ways the status quo remains is when people act ignorant and helpless—an excuse that’s not so viable when the basics about encouraging more diversity already are well known. “There is too much information on how to create fair and equitable HR policies,” says Paul Harper, a clinical assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz School of Business. “You can’t tell me you don’t know or can’t find out about it. All these good schools—Yale, Northwestern, Harvard, Virginia—you can’t tell me you didn’t know.”

At the same time, there are things people don’t know enough about—such as about their personal and family history—which reduces their empathy. As part of their classwork, Harper has students talk with older people in their families and do research to see what their forebearers faced.

“Many learned that the name they’ve had for 20 years wasn’t their actual names because they were changed for fear of discrimination,” Harper says. “They learned about grandma’s family who wouldn’t accept grandpa because of ethnic backgrounds. All you need to know is hearing your grandfather say that because he was Polish, he was called by the football coach at his college or high school the P-word. You can start to understand what it’s like for other groups,” even if at a lower scale. This type of empathy is exactly what executives need to better the concepts of equity and diversity. 

It’s all part of the “language of justice,” as Harper puts it. Unless understanding, morality, and ethics play a strong role, it’s too easy for individuals and organizations to backslide, which has been the history of diversity and inclusion efforts in business since the 1960s.

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