Developing a more diverse and inclusive future for all in education and business

Business Impact: Developing a more diverse and inclusive future for all in education and business

Business Schools must prioritise inclusivity or face being left behind. Highlights from a session at the AMBA & BGA Business School Leaders Summit 2022

The success of Business Schools is increasingly aligned to leadership efforts to become inclusive and develop a progressive strategy that has diversity at its core. Generation Z is calling for it and, with equality movements such as LGBTQ+ and BLM gaining momentum, it is imperative that Business Schools continue to meet these demands. Simply put: The winning formula is a diverse one.

Change is happening but at a pace that, historically, has been too slow across all sectors. With the momentum that has been generated, it is vital for Schools to prioritise inclusivity or face being left behind.

Schools must look to a mix of backgrounds within their talent pool. Business School leaders, student recruitment, and HR must collaborate to build inclusive strategies that support diversity. This should focus on groups that may otherwise be marginalised.

Creating fair working environments

In an interactive panel session at the AMBA & BGA Business School Leaders Summit 2022, four experts shared their opinions on work that is being done to create, incorporate and develop culture, diversity, and inclusion practices in Business Schools, while campaigning for fair working environments around the world.

Laura Pacey, Product Director, UK, HE & OUP, McGraw Hill, posed a question to the panel, asking where barriers to the ‘cultural shift’ in business exist, and where the shift should start in order to achieve diversity, equity and inclusion – given that, so far, training programmes have not always been successful. She kicked off the discussion by making the point that ‘we certainly too often think that equity, diversity and inclusion are the same, but there are certain things to address within this definition.’

Sofia Skrypnyk, Head of Equity, Inclusion & Human Rights, C&A was first to share her insights. ‘The best way to fast-track efforts in equity and inclusion is to accept that there are no short cuts and no silver bullets for this agenda,’ she argued. ‘It’s a social justice agenda and requires lasting behavioural change. One of the problems is that in the corporate sector, we’re looking at this agenda as a series of events that are inspirational projects, rather than as a deep-rooted change that takes years. 

‘The field of diversity and inclusion is relatively new, but over the past decade, there has been so much research, and a body of evidence on what works and what doesn’t. We must stop looking for the next hot topic and have patience; we can learn from insights in social science and social change management. A lack of data is a result of inequity, so explore any data that should accompany any intervention that will bring any change you want to see.’

Oluchi Ikechi D’Amico, Partner, Head of Innovation for Strategy & Transactions APAC, Capital Markets, EY, added: ‘One of the big things organisations need to do is focus on inclusion. When they think about diversity, equality, and inclusion they focus too much on diversity –where they are, where they want to get to and the targets they aspire to.

‘Simply put, we need to do more on inclusion, and this goes beyond training. It’s about the DNA of an organisation and belonging. This can be learned but cannot be [taught]. It happens through real dialogue, core values and a need for recognising there is a problem and that something needs to be done about it. Inclusion is something we speak about – but not something we fully understand. If it’s addressed, then we should have a diverse, representative workforce.’

Closing the session, Steve Butler, CEO, Punter Southall Aspire, Author of Inclusive Culture, Advisor to The Diversity Project, and CIPD Academic Member, added: ‘In my sector [financial services], we need to attract a different set of individuals and then create a culture where individuals can progress and train to make it through the organisations into senior roles. It’s a long-term play, but without the efforts we’re discussing, nothing will change.’

Laura Pacey, Product Director, UK, HE & OUP, McGraw Hill

Steve Butler, CEO, Punter Southall Aspire, Author of Inclusive Culture, Advisor to The Diversity Project, and CIPD Academic Member
Oluchi Ikechi D’Amico, Partner, Head of Innovation for Strategy and Transactions APAC, Capital Markets, EY
Sofia Skrypnyk, Head of Equity, Inclusion & Human Rights, C&A

This article is adapted from one which originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

Transforming inclusion for people with disabilities

Business Impact: Transforming inclusion for people with disabilities

Inclusion for people with disabilities is often sidelined, but Schools have a role in enhancing opportunities and changing perceptions, writes Nyenrode Business University’s Naomi Vervaart

Diversity and inclusion is usually part of a Business School’s strategy, but policies for people with a disability are not always covered.

I believe the subject of disability inclusion at international Business Schools is of great importance and should be discussed more. It should become an integral part of an inclusive strategy for Schools worldwide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, disability inclusion means understanding the relationship between the way people function and how they participate in society, and making sure everybody has the same opportunities to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires. One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. One-fifth of the estimated global total – or between 110 million and 190 million people – experience significant disabilities.

Given that disabilities have such wide-reaching effects, it’s surely important for international Business Schools to understand how disabilities can uniquely impact a person, and in turn how Schools can offer their help and support. This may range from looking at application processes to scrutinising the accessibility of buildings and curricula. It includes support not only for the students, but also for the academics and employees (such as me) who work within Business Schools.

Drawing on first-hand experience

I was born and raised in Bruekelen, and having stayed close to my roots, am now working at the Business School there: Nyenrode Business University. Disability inclusion is a topic close to my heart as I was born with hereditary spastic paraparesis and am a wheelchair user. This is a rare condition, caused by the impaired functioning of descending nerves in the spinal cord. It manifests in increasing spasticity, weakness and stiffness in both legs which can make it difficult to walk. While it cannot be prevented, slowed or reversed, some of its symptoms can be managed to make day-to-day activities easier.

Prior to my role at Nyenrode Business University, I graduated as a teacher of Dutch sign language. However, I found it challenging to find a job in this sector and, after my studies, I worked for a year in customer services at the Dutch railways. I came across the opening at Nyenrode Business University with the help of an employment agency. I began working here in 2016, initially  as programme co-ordinator at the Executive Education department, responsible for participant administration. 

In April 2021, I became programme advisor. I enjoy helping people find a programme that suits their learning needs. My typical day includes contacting people who have shown interest in a certain course, or offering my help to those who might have queries about studying at Nyenrode Business University. Our executive education offers approximately 100 programmes and there’s always something (not least an email or 10) to keep me busy. 

Trying to find a suitable programme for a student with a physical or learning disability is not always straightforward. For those who need extra support, there can be challenges to overcome, and I believe we need to support these students in their studies; for example, by adding more guidance and information about studying with a disability to our websites and making this information clearly visible on the homepage.  

I would also like to see brochures featuring images of both disabled and able-bodied people. Little things like this can make someone with disabilities feel more included, showing that their needs will be catered for. Universities should take the time to consider how they present themselves, and their accessibility and acceptance of disabled people. This would make a big difference to students with disabilities applying for their programmes, giving them confidence that an institution is able to offer proper support. 

Tips for Business Schools

My advice for Schools includes making sure that application processes promote an inclusive environment. If your School is truly accessible to everyone, and is it possible for people with disabilities to study there, then make that clear. Upload details to your website and print it in your brochures. Enable students with disabilities to share their experiences with new students. Promote the fact that students with disabilities are welcome at your School. 

Inclusion for people with disabilities can often take a back seat in the face of other issues or priorities. Disability can fall behind the curve when it comes to Business School strategy, in comparison to other diversity strands such as gender, race and sexual orientation. These receive more attention, perhaps because there is greater awareness of them. 

Many people within universities – students and academics alike – have had little experience of disability. Schools can make sure that policies and practices exist to make disability awareness more of a priority, and create an environment that is inclusive and accessible to all. In many cases, it is quite possible to study when you have a disability. However, I believe Schools need think about, and help with, necessary adjustments.

There are various different strategies that international Business Schools can implement to encourage and develop a culture of inclusion. Preparation and awareness training is a great way to mitigate a lot of challenges. For example, making sure a building is accessible to those who use a wheelchair or require mobility aids makes it much easier and more comfortable for students with disabilities to move about. Installing equipment that supports students’ needs gives them full access to education. 

At Nyenrode, accessibility is something that has been thought through and has really benefited me. I can move around easily in my wheelchair in the newer buildings here. In fact, I can do so in all but the castle, which was built hundreds of years ago. Our location in Amsterdam is also accessible to those with unique requirements.

Meanwhile, improving the way in which information is delivered to those with learning disabilities can make teaching, and the curriculum, more accessible and welcoming; for example, using assistive technology or audio formats to encourage multi-sensory learning and to cater to the different ways in which a student may engage with information. This might include providing readings and printouts in a larger font, using Braille worksheets, or something as simple as improving the lighting in classrooms to make for a more comfortable learning environment. 

Simply facilitating a discussion between faculty and students on what, and how, improvements can be made can make a difference. This is something that happens at Nyenrode. Everyone is welcome here, as long as the study is suited to them. We discuss students’ needs, and together we will look for solutions. It doesn’t matter whether a student has a disability or not. 

Giving people the opportunity and tools to talk about their disability creates an open and transparent environment at a Business School, and this is a really important way of bringing disability inclusion to the forefront of a School’s agenda. Through facilitating discussions, Schools enable students to offer their own ideas and bring first-hand experience to the table around how to promote change in terms of the School’s facilities, organisations, curricula or policies. We find the conversations with prospective students to be very important. 

Bridging the gap between education and employment

Having addressed these practical issues, the next step for many Business Schools and universities to consider is bridging the gap between study and employment for those with disabilities. When looking at my own situation a number of years ago, I recall that the School I attended in Utrecht provided little in the way of help when I was considering life after university. As a result, I had trouble find an internship and was apprehensive about applying for jobs subsequently, expecting to face similar issues. Writing my résumé was also a challenge due to the lack of guidance. 

For example, I struggled with whether or not to state on applications that I was in a wheelchair. I wasn’t sure whether to introduce the subject during the first few emails. However, fortunately, at my School, I spotted a flyer on the bulletin board advertising an employment agency for people with disabilities – named ‘Emma at Work’ – so I reached out to them. 

Emma at Work is specifically designed to help young people with disabilities find employment. The agency started in 2006 from a project in the Emma Children’s Hospital (EKZ) Amsterdam UMC. After a year, it became an independent foundation, growing into a non-profit organisation. The agency is committed to closing the gap between young people who have a chronic illness or physical condition and the labour market. 

The agency helps to train and develop young people aged between 15 and 30 through its programme GAP Track. The aim is to find each applicant a job at a company that suits them. It wants to help create a society in which everyone can participate. I don’t think I would have been able to find a job so quickly without Emma at Work’s help. Thankfully, I found the agency, but I would like to see more faculty members having conversations with students with disabilities and giving them the sort of advice I received from the agency – especially when it comes to finding accessible internships. 

When considering the future of diversity and inclusion for all in business education, I am incredibly optimistic. The subject is becoming increasingly important, and I believe that more and more people are beginning to talk about disability. Already, there are many Business Schools providing disability co-ordinators, specific disability policies and pages of support on their websites. This is an important step in the right direction. 

I hope that, through sharing my own experiences – alongside those of others in similar situations – I can provide a positive example of how it is possible to overcome potential challenges and that this will serve as a message of encouragement to others. International Business Schools have the power to change perceptions. They can help to puncture the idea that students with disabilities will struggle to study or to work. They can help to provide environments that are truly inclusive to everyone. 

Naomi Vervaart joined Nyenrode Business University in 2016, working as Programme Coordinator in the School’s executive education department. In April 2021, she became a Programme Advisor at Nyenrode.
Disability inclusion is a topic close toNaomi’s heart as she is a wheelchair user, having been born with hereditary spastic paraparesis.

This article originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

Encouraging acceptance over assimilation

Business Impact: Diversity - acceptance over assimilation with UCL School of Management

The unique perspectives brought to organisations by international students and workers may be tolerated in the first instance, but there are often expectations that newcomers assimilate to presiding norms over time. UCL School of Management’s Felix Danbold outlines why Business Schools should be ready to anticipate and address tensions that may emerge

Moving to a new country for one’s studies or work can be an exhilarating, enriching and often daunting experience. The typical international student has a lot on their plate. On top of their coursework, they might have to become increasingly fluent in another language while also forging new connections in a country with new norms and expectations. International students studying on management or MBA programmes are often also faced with the stresses associated with gaining valuable, but demanding, international business experience and securing highly competitive jobs in their chosen country.

When you couple moving to a new country with finding a new job, expats might wonder how they can navigate these changes successfully. When starting at a new university or job, international students may feel pressure to conform to the expectations of new colleagues and employers. A real worry may emerge that if they don’t assimilate, they may experience bias and ostracism. This pressure to conform may be especially challenging for international students who strongly identify with their country of origin, and who are reluctant to sacrifice their norms and values for the sake of fitting in.

The tension that international workers feel these days echoes a common challenge for contemporary organisations and universities. These institutions, now recognising the value of diversity and inclusion, often want to embrace difference among employees. Tolerance of difference allows each employee to bring unique and valuable perspectives to the workplace, enhancing innovation and progress. 

However, we know tolerance isn’t always guaranteed, and that many would prefer it if all minority groups assimilated to the majority’s way of doing things. Some degree of assimilation will always be necessary just so organisations can function, as a common language and way of doing things is essential for coordination and efficiency. How then, can we collectively ensure that students and workers from international backgrounds are all able to succeed and contribute, while also sparing them the pressure to give up their valuable perspectives and sense of self?

Understanding where majority group intolerance comes from

Understanding how we can help alleviate the pressures on immigrants to assimilate requires an understanding of who is generating these pressures – i.e. the native-born majority group. Throughout history, there is an abundance of examples of majority groups treating minorities poorly and, despite some progress in recent years, this is not a phenomenon that we’ve escaped.

The majority group’s desire for minority groups to conform to the majority’s norms is rooted in the fundamental dynamics of social groups. In diverse settings, the majority group typically enjoys the privileged position of representing the broader category in which they reside. For example, when people think of what it means to be a citizen of a given country, they typically think of members of the native-born majority group. This means that the majority group sets the norms to which other groups are expected to conform. Being the group that is most strongly associated with their broader context affords members of majority groups a reliable sense of inclusion and comfort. In academic terminology, we would say that majority groups are ‘prototypical’ of their broader contexts.

There are many examples of prototypicality in action. For example, in historically male-dominated professions like firefighting, men are prototypical, whereas women are not. That is, when asked to think of a firefighter, most people will think of a man. Within firefighting, stereotypically masculine traits (such as strength, stamina and decisiveness) are often privileged over stereotypically feminine one (such as compassion and patience). All of this means that women have a harder time being recognised as fitting the mould of a ‘true firefighter’. This doesn’t mean that individual men can’t also struggle to fit in, only that their gender is unlikely to be the source of these challenges in the same way that it is for women. 

International students and immigrants often face similar barriers as a result of their non-prototypicality. People who are native to their country of residence don’t have to worry whether their nationality will put them at a disadvantage in the same way that immigrants often do.

Expectations of assimilation shape bias

Compounding the disadvantage that immigrants may face given their non-prototypicality, my research highlights how the senses of group prototypicality can actually drive increases in bias against minority groups, such as international students. 

The sense of security and comfort that prototypicality affords can quickly dissipate when change is felt to be imminent. If established majority groups notice an increase in the representation of minority groups, they may feel that their prototypicality, their very sense of belonging and the sense of comfort connected to it, is threatened. The majority group may feel like they will soon be the ones who will have to worry about fitting in. My research shows that this sense of ‘prototypicality threat’ – the fear of losing prototypicality – is a powerful driver of dominant groups’ resistance to diversity.

My own research has also shown that feelings of threat are deeply influenced by prospective beliefs about whether intergroup difference will grow or shrink over time. Members of majority groups are most susceptible to prototypicality threat when they believe that minority groups are unwilling or unable to assimilate over time. In contrast, however, members of majority groups who believe that minority groups will assimilate do not experience this threat. That is, members of dominant groups are willing to tolerate some difference in the present, but only if they believe it will diminish over time.

Increasing tolerance

In light of this research, one might think it would be best for international students and immigrants to always assimilate as the best way to avoid conflict when interacting with members of their new country. 

Although my research shows that this would, indeed, reduce the discomfort felt by the native-born majority, we strongly recommend that individuals and organisations avoid this approach. As noted, some degree of assimilation will be necessary, but total assimilation will undermine diversity and inclusion goals and may come at great psychological cost to immigrants who feel attached to their identities. Furthermore, members of the majority group may still feel threatened by immigrants in other ways, like perceptions of increased competition over jobs and resources. 

Rather than sacrificing diversity to placate an anxious and privileged majority, efforts should be directed at increasing tolerance. Reminding members of the majority group that their ‘prototypicality’ is incidental, and that institutions are perpetually redefining themselves to better fit in a changing global market may be one way to reduce majority group resistance to change. Emphasising the value of diversity and inclusion for everyone may be another way to encourage members of majority groups to overcome their discomfort in welcoming international peers who retain, rather than shed, their unique backgrounds. 

Efforts to encourage inclusion will also need to be embraced and enacted by leadership. For immigrants, this may mean drawing attention to the often-subtle peer pressure that makes someone feel like their sense of belonging is conditional on assimilating. Employee resource groups where members of minority groups can talk about their experiences with those in a similar position can be beneficial as well. Mentorship programmes and town-hall meetings can ensure that communication is maintained and that any latent tensions are addressed before they lead to serious conflict. To ensure that the burden of responsibility does not fall entirely on new starters, leadership should act quickly to create these structures if they do not exist already.

None of the difficulties I’ve mentioned should dissuade anyone from choosing to study or work in another country. I genuinely believe that the experience offers unrivalled opportunities to grow knowledge, capabilities and cultural awareness. I also don’t want to suggest that intergroup conflict is inevitable, as many people will have wholly positive experiences studying or working abroad. However, given how commonplace intolerance still is, institutions should be ready to anticipate and address tensions that may emerge. I hope that international students moving on from their management programmes also remember the uniquely different perspective that they bring to organisations and the inherent added value that provides. It should not be forgotten, because it cannot be replaced. 

Recommendations for leaders in Business Schools and beyond

Here are three things that leaders in organisations can do to increase appreciation for international students and workers:

1) Prepare for some discomfort from the majority group

All people naturally get comfortable doing things in certain ways over time. This is especially true when they feel like their own way of doing things is the way that the majority of people have always done them. Introducing different and new perspectives can sometimes lead to disagreement and tension from those who would prefer that others assimilate to them, rather than the other way around. Business leaders and managers should be prepared for the possibility of complaints from members of majority groups and take steps to ensure that these unsettled individuals don’t take out their discomfort directly on the newcomers.

2) Carefully define what you value

The traits we collectively value in our institutions and organisations often inadvertently reflect the traits already associated with the majority group. If organisations reinforce this in one way or another, they may unwittingly legitimise the idea that the majority group is valued more than newcomers. Highlighting the value of the traits associated with international students and workers can both increase tolerance and dispel the notion that the majority group’s way of doing things will always be the best. Emphasising the importance of diversity and inclusion, and making a public commitment to these goals, can also help remind hesitant individuals that their organisation wants them to embrace difference. 

3) Give international students and workers a way to speak up

Belonging to a minority group can be an isolating experience, so organisations should proactively provide opportunities and spaces for international students and workers to gather together and talk about their shared experiences. Direct communication with leadership can help ensure that challenges are being identified and addressed.

Felix Danbold is Assistant Professor in Organisations and Innovation at UCL School of Management. Previously, he was a Postdoctoral Research Scholar and Visiting Assistant Professor at NYU Stern School of Business. 

Danbold holds a PhD from UCLA, where he taught and conducted research in the Psychology Department and Anderson School of Management.

This article is taken from Business Impact’s print magazine (edition: August-October 2021).

Forging partnerships that enhance gender equality

Business Impact article image for Forging partnerships that enhance gender equality.

Strong relationships between Business Schools and corporates can encourage diversity, equality and inclusion in society, write NEOMA Business School’s Sandie Pédemons and Isabelle Chevalier

Business Schools are natural partners for many organisations, from large corporations to charities and non-profits. These partnerships can be beneficial to both sides. Many organisations see partnering with Business Schools as an opportunity to gain a competitive edge, as well as providing them with access to some of the world’s best business talent of the future. 

From the Business School perspective, successful partnerships can bring exciting internship opportunities for their students, worldwide study trips, valuable projects as part of courses, and, ultimately, recruitment opportunities for their graduates. However, in recent years there has certainly been a notable trend in terms of organisations partnering with Business Schools in order to offer opportunities to students from minority groups, enhancing diversity and equality.

Partnering with Maison Veuve Clicquot

This is certainly true at NEOMA Business School, which, this year, has partnered with luxury Champagne brand Maison Veuve Clicquot to establish a scholarship programme that will finance tuition fees for 10 international female master’s in management students per year. 

Based in Reims, France, Maison Veuve Clicquot is one of the largest Champagne houses, specialising in premium products. It is credited with creating the first known vintage Champagne in 1810 and inventing the riddling table process to clarify Champagne in 1816. This established company therefore has hundreds of years of history, yet is still adapting and progressing with society, ultimately sharing a commitment to diversity and equal opportunities with NEOMA. This made it a perfect partner for our Business School. 

In essence, this scholarship programme is fully in line with our ambitions and aims to support the careers of brilliant female students who have difficulty financing their studies; scholarships are awarded on the basis of social, financial, and academic criteria. Today, young women continue to face barriers to education, so this initiative recognises the vital role that learning plays in the liberation and future success of women.

NEOMA has always taken a strong approach to gender equality, and with the support of Veuve Clicquot, we will be able to go even further by taking proactive action in favour of the talented women who join our School. 

In addition to the scholarship, students will also have opportunities to meet with members of the Veuve Clicquot management committee throughout their studies, enabling them to gain advice on their professional projects. By offering such opportunities, companies can help to encourage much greater inclusion within society for the long term. 

Enabling students from minority backgrounds to flourish

At NEOMA, we have noticed the benefits of foundations, scholarships and solidarity funds, in terms of encouraging inclusion and equality within our Business School community – especially over the past 10 years. This is now the case for companies, where issues around diversity and inclusion sit at the heart of the problems faced by managers today. Through partnerships, organisations can make long-term commitments to those from minority backgrounds by opening the doors of their companies to them, and supporting them in their success.

While initiatives to promote diversity and equality already exist within companies and educational institutions, collaboration is now essential in order to create coherence, and to lay future foundations for initiatives and goals between both sides to develop for years to come. This will ensure individuals from more minority backgrounds can be included and can ultimately flourish. 

In our opinion, it is the role of Business Schools to offer students an open and transparent window on the best of what is being done in terms of inclusion and equality in the professional world. This is all the more apparent in the current business climate, and with a generation that is particularly sensitive to these issues. Let’s not forget that societal commitment has become a lever for companies to work on their employer brand. 

Business Schools and companies therefore need to work collaboratively to raise awareness of issues surrounding equality, but also to take action; for example, through delivering salary negotiation workshops and providing scholarships to ensure access to higher education and mentoring is available for all. Only this way will more equal opportunities become available.

This is essential for gender equality – and the figures speak for themselves. Although there is a real awareness in organisations (and the legal obligations play in favour of parity) the equality deficit is still very high. With family life still mainly the responsibility of women, companies must adapt to reassure them that they will be able to develop in a professional environment that allows them to combine the two elements of their lives.

Breaking down stereotypes

And of course, some professional women still have self-limiting beliefs. Business Schools and companies must work together to break down stereotypes and repeat the message to a new generation that women can go into fields such as finance. To do this, it’s essential for women to share their stories of successfully combining a professional career with personal fulfilment. Unfortunately, these case studies are still too rare, but the joint commitment of the academic and professional worlds to achieving gender equality will be the best way to change the way things are done.

To conclude, through partnerships such as our collaboration with Veuve Clicquot, we are promoting the notion that by building relationships with companies and developing initiatives that promote equality, we can help to create future leaders who are aware that diversity and richness can be perfectly combined, and that equality can rhyme with normality. These partnerships are essential for the future success not only of our students, but of the companies and Business Schools involved, ensuring they remain current, accessible and in harmony with communities.  

Sandie Pédemons is Director of Corporate Relations at NEOMA Business School.

Isabelle Chevalier is Director of the Talent and Career Department at NEOMA Business School.

This article originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

How to get reverse mentoring right – and why it’s key to tackling diversity

Business man and woman reviewing some documents. Business Impact article image for how to get reverse mentoring right — and why it's key to tackling diversity.

Reverse mentoring in traditionally male-dominated industries allows senior male staff to gain insights into the lives, challenges, pressures, and ambitions of younger women in the business, says Steve Butler, author of Inclusive Culture

To help address the under-representation of female employees in the leadership decision-making of the organisation I work for, we have embraced reverse mentoring. This is where the mentee is the older or more senior person in the pair, and the mentor is the younger or more junior person. Although we didn’t introduce reverse mentoring solely to encourage gender equality, it has played a key role in achieving just that – motivating a significant number of women to progress their careers with us. This under-representation has been my most significant and pressing strategic issue since our business grew to 150 people through a number of acquisitions, resulting in an executive committee made up entirely of men. If resolved, it could ultimately avoid the risk of male groupthink.

Gaining insight and overcoming challenges

In reverse mentoring, the payoff for the mentee is that they gain insight into a different generation or culture and find out more about practices and ideas from someone outside their typical circle. Given the current situation in our industry (the financial services sector, which has traditionally been a very male dominated industry) women are more likely to be the mentor in this pairing. That has allowed senior male staff to gain insights into the lives, challenges, pressures, and ambitions of younger women in the business. The different perspectives also ensures there are no blind spots within the senior management team’s thinking.

Senior managers can learn from a female mentor about things that their customers might also be experiencing, feeling, believing, or liking. In the mentor role, women can gain visibility with the senior management team, displaying the talent that the company is developing as they look to the future.

Reverse mentoring can be challenging, and some of the first few meetings can be uncomfortable, or even awkward. The senior manager may struggle with taking advice from someone who is in a more junior role in the organisation. A more junior employee may not feel comfortable with being transparent about their concerns and priorities, or with challenging the thinking of someone who could hinder their career. The most important factor that will shape these meetings in the positive manner intended is mutual respect. Having respect for one another is a hallmark of a mentoring relationship, no matter who the mentee or mentor are. Respect for one another will show up in how the pair speak to one another, listen to one another, treat one another, and treat their relationship. With respect, comes trust. When mentees and mentors believe the best in someone and know they are open to giving or receiving feedback, open to learning from or teaching something to their partner, and acting with the best intentions, they build trust in them. This trust may not come easily, but it is essential for a mentoring relationship to work.

Improving team communication

At the same time as introducing reverse mentoring, our organisation also changed its business meeting structure. Meetings now begin with each attendee taking a minute or two to update the others on what’s happening in their life, particularly their personal development and wellbeing. Although there was some hesitance to this at first, everyone has now fully embraced the approach, not least because it signals that our priority as a business is the welfare of our people. Starting the meeting with a personal reflection breaks down reserve and sets the tone for the meeting. Then, when you reach the business section, people are much more transparent and responsive, and the meeting is far more productive. It also creates better understanding of what other pressures people in the team are dealing with in their lives. This can reduce disagreements and tensions, heading potential rifts off at the pass. Knowing what issues they are facing also gives insights into how to manage individuals in that team. It has improved team communication and increased openness and understanding. Critically, it has broken down the macho approach that’s so common in finance businesses, where sales and profit are the beginning, middle and end of meetings.

Women taking part in the reverse mentoring and new style of management meetings say that having their voices heard and valued has opened a door. Many have fed back that being involved in these meetings has increased their confidence and that participating in reverse mentoring has broadened their horizons.

Steve Butler, CEO of Punter Southall Aspire and author of Inclusive Culture: Leading Change Across Organisations and Industries

How far are Business Schools from achieving diversity and equality?

Abstract illustration of two duo-tone coloured hands touching the side of the palms symbolising diversity and inclusion.

Representatives of Imperial College Business School, Monash Business School and IE Business School discuss recent initiatives and programme offerings with diversity and inclusion at their heart

In order to advance fair and equal business practices, graduates of business education – and future leaders – must represent demographics as diverse as their future customers and communities. But, challenges remain to develop cultures that are inclusive across race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, social class and nationality.

A session at the AMBA & BGA Global Conference 2021 brought together speakers representing the winning Business Schools in the ‘Best Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative’ category of the AMBA & BGA Excellence Awards 2021. They shared examples of their strategies to nurture cultures defined by diversity and equality in their Schools and beyond.

Business School initiatives in Australia, Spain and the UK

Celia de Anca, Deputy Dean for Ethics, Diversity and Inclusion at IE Business School, outlined the LGBT+@Work initiative, which delves into marginalised populations and new perspectives. De Anca also shared her thoughts on collaboration and conversation, in terms of achieving female equality.

Imperial College Business School, meanwhile, has recently launched a year-long equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) course entitled ‘Working in Diverse Organisations’. Jöel McConnell, the School’s Executive Director of Marketing, Recruitment and Admissions, explained that this offers EDI learnings and toolkits to help students to become diverse-aware employees and leaders, able to optimise differences and create more effective organisations. He added that this is one of the first steps in Imperial College Business School’s efforts to embrace of diversity in all its forms.

Nicolas McGuigan, Director of Equity, Diversity and Social Inclusion at Monash Business School, announced its new course, specifically geared towards indigenous Australian people. The Master of Indigenous Business Leadership is a cross-disciplinary programme, complemented by a tailored offering in design thinking, together with units in law and public policy.

McGuigan also talked about his School’s Queering Accounting diversity initiative. Through numerous educational, research, and industry activities, Queering Accounting is said to have enhanced the School’s culture of dignity and respect, enriching the experience of staff and students and helping to foster social justice, with the input of key stakeholders.

Moving the conversation forwards

During the session, panellists were able to share granular insights and examples. However, given the numerous challenges to achieving genuine diversity in business education, they were keen to leave the audience with three important takeaways to help guide discussions moving forward, acknowledging that translating intellectual debates into corporate policy is difficult to get right.

1. It is important to have discussions about belonging and individuality when thinking about diversity and inclusion.

2. Belonging is about both institutional belonging (and how to foster a sense of it) and belonging to groups that may be identified by protected characteristics (such as age, race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, gender reassignment, relationship status, pregnancy and maternity, and religion and belief).

3. There should be an ongoing intellectual and philosophical debate within universities about equality, diversity and inclusion. These discussions should help inform the policies that public- and private-sector organisations put into place. 

* Celia de Anca, Deputy Dean for Ethics, Diversity and Inclusion, IE Business School, Spain
* Jöel McConnell, Executive Director of Marketing, Recruitment and Admissions, Imperial College Business School, UK
* Nicolas McGuigan, Director of Equity, Diversity and Social Inclusion, Monash Business School, Australia

This article is adapted from a feature that originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

A brighter future: culture, diversity and inclusion

Here is a large, diverse crowd of business working professionals socially distancing standing outside dressed in smart attire. Business Impact article for A brighter future: culture, diversity and inclusion.

The opportunity to bring greater diversity and inclusion to Business Schools and, by extension, the business world, in a post-Covid-19 landscape

As the world looks to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, a ‘crisis environment’ in which creative ideas and innovations have flourished also presents Business School leaders with an opportunity to direct their organisations to make seismic changes in diversity and inclusion (D&I). Through direct action and a ripple effect, they can improve the economic opportunities for underrepresented segments of society.  

As such, a session at the AMBA & BGA Festival of Excellence explored options for enhancing and developing diversity strategies in business education, drawing on insight from experts in the field and those who have developed D&I initiatives in international corporate organisations – with inspiring results.

Peter MacDonald, panel chair and Director of Business School Services at Advent Group, explained that there has been a large body of research showing that people want to feel that they are a ‘part of something’, citing demonstrable business benefits in terms of performance in relation to this. 

With that in mind, how can organisations today fast-track moves towards a more inclusive and diverse culture? What more could and should Business Schools be doing in terms of curriculum development around these points? 

Defining inclusive leadership 

Sheree Atcheson, Board Member at Women Who Code, explained: ‘Business Schools can define what inclusive leadership looks like before people go out into different businesses or start their own businesses. I think this opportunity should not be wasted. [Business Schools] have an opportunity to embed inclusive principles and leadership techniques, so we aren’t continually having the same problems in trying to retrospectively train leaders on what it means to run an organisation inclusively, what it means to measure inclusion as well as diversity, and so on. 

‘The purpose of measurement is you can check if initiatives are working for you and going in the right direction, or if they are not. The key part of this for Business Schools is the role modelling of this behaviour.’ 

Taking the conversation further, Paul Sesay, CEO and Founder of Inclusive Companies, added: ‘A lot of organisations go wrong because they think that one shoe fits all. D&I is unique to an individual organisation – you can’t cut and paste initiatives. From an inclusion perspective, you have to look at the HR processes that are unique to your leadership culture before you can really move forward with inclusion. It has to come from the very top as well, from the CEO downwards to the operational staff. 

‘You’ve got to look at the culture within the organisation in order to make change and you’ve got to have difficult conversations to know what needs to be done. You may think that your culture is a certain way but when you dig into the lived experiences of individuals at work, it’s often completely different.’

Embedding learning about difference into core curricula 

Looking more specifically at the topic of diversity within Business Schools, Stephen Frost, CEO and Founder of Frost Included, explained: ‘It is a core part of leadership that we learn about difference, and that we learn about how to manage difference and how to learn from difference in order to empathise. That isn’t just a soft skill, it’s critically important for customer service, marketing, negotiation, and strategy. So, it’s about embedding this, not as a separate module, but as a core part of curriculum design. 

‘This also forms part of the values that are upheld by the School itself. On the one hand, there are some obvious things, like supporting D&I and dealing with psychological safety. But it’s also about making sure that it’s clear to everyone that it’s OK to have the debate. Sometimes we have to create safe spaces where people can fail, where they can use the wrong language and where they can ask questions – where they are educated and not simply belittled.’

Closing a lively debate, Juan Pablo Otero, CSR expert and D&I activist, proffered that D&I is not just about presence, but also representation: ‘Sometimes, we think that if we have someone with disabilities in our organisation we are OK, or if we have someone from another race or country then we are okay, but at the end only 5% of the organisation is part of a minority,’ he said. ‘We need to set goals and measure what we are in the beginning and where we want to get to. In that way, we will see our little steps.

‘We all expect big changes. What we have been living through in the last year, has shown us that we are all vulnerable. When we go back to the office, we won’t be the same as we were last year. We are going to be more sensible. This pandemic has shown us that we are so different, but we are living through the same experience across the world. This period has shown us that the only way we can solve problems is by working together. One of the advantages of the situation we are living through is that it has revealed a lot about inclusion because we have been involved in teamwork and working with all people.’ 

Chair: Peter MacDonald, Director of Business School Services, Advent Group

Panellists: Sheree Atcheson, Board Member, Women Who Code; Stephen Frost, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Frost Included; Juan Pablo Otero, CSR and sustainability expert, and D&I activist; Paul Sesay, CEO and Founder, Inclusive Companies

This article was originally published in Ambition (the magazine of BGA’s sister organisation, AMBA).

Addressing hidden identity threats in the diverse workplace

A single penguin standing away from a group of penguins. Business Impact article on Addressing hidden identity threats in the diverse workplace.

There are challenges concerning both minority and majority groups in the workplace that organisations must be aware of and act on, if diversity, equity and inclusion policies are to be effective, say UCL School of Management’s Clarissa Cortland and Felix Danbold

As workplaces become more diverse, many companies are already seeing great gains. Increased diversity in organisations has been linked to improvements in innovation and profitability, and it also plays a vital social purpose in reducing inequalities between demographic groups.

However, those who work at the forefront of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) in organisations know that growing diversity also brings its share of challenges. Being around members of different groups can activate deep psychological anxieties for members of minority and majority groups alike. Our research shows how group identities (for example, gender, race or nationality) can lead employees of any background to feel a sense of threat, and how this threat may undermine employee wellbeing and the ability to work together harmoniously. Critically, because these threats are rooted in identity, rather than more tangible sources like competition over material resources, they can be challenging to put a finger on. Without understanding and addressing these often-overlooked threats, DEI efforts are likely to fall short of their goals.

Threats for members of minority groups

Groups that are historically underrepresented in many organisational contexts, such as ethnic minorities, or women in historically masculine industries and professional roles, often face both the burden of being relatively isolated, as well as the stigma often tied to their group membership.

For example, women are often stereotyped as communal (for example, warm, kind and sympathetic) and more suitable for support roles, as compared to men, who are more often considered for leadership positions. Because of this, as women start to progress in their careers and climb the corporate ladder, they can face increasing pressure to disprove the negative and discouraging stereotypes about women and leadership success. The pressure mounts the more underrepresented women are in comparison to men – such as at the top levels of many organisations – as their numerical minority status exposes them to heightened scrutiny and judgment from others.

This fear of confirming negative stereotypes about an identity you hold is called ‘stereotype threat’. Stereotype threat can be experienced as in-the-moment distracting anxieties and concerns that can undermine performance on a given task or activity (such as giving a high-stakes speech or presentation). It can also be experienced as chronic long-term disengagement, where the constant pressure and burden to not confirm stereotypes can eventually take their toll.

Threats for members of majority groups

Members of majority groups often enjoy something akin to the opposite of stereotype threat whereby their group identity serves as a consistent source of inclusion and comfort. For example, while women in historically masculine professions may worry whether, by virtue of their gender, they can belong, men in these contexts rarely have to think of their gender as a factor in their sense of ‘fit’ at work. In academic terms, we say that majority groups are ‘prototypical’ – being strongly associated with the broader context in which they exist (for example, in their organisation or profession) and setting the norms to which other groups are expected to conform to.

Although being prototypical affords members of majority groups a sense of comfort, this can quickly fade when change is on the horizon. If members of majority groups see the representation of minority groups increasing, they may experience prototypicality threat. Members of majority groups experiencing this threat may fear that their default sense of belonging will be lost and that they will soon be the ones who feel like outsiders. This fear that their comfort and security may be lost is a powerful driver of members of dominant groups’ resistance to diversity efforts and prejudice against minority groups.

Recommendations for reducing identity threats

Once organisations become aware of these identity threats, they will want to act to reduce them. Fortunately, the awareness of these threats alone is a great first step.

Research shows that members of minority groups who experience stereotype threat are more motivated to improve diversity climates. Organisations might think about giving minority voices a safe forum to acknowledge and share these firsthand experiences with stereotype threat. This is one way to raise awareness, normalise these discussions, and galvanise change.

Visibly highlighting the success of various minority employees can also be helpful, as role models have been found to have a protective effect against the pernicious effects of stereotype threat. This is due to the inspiring and empowering effect of seeing someone who looks like you achieve success. Additionally, visible examples of successful minorities can relieve the burden of any one individual having to prove negative stereotypes wrong. While these are good measures to include in DEI efforts, the responsibility to reduce these threats shouldn’t fall solely on the minority groups who are already facing an undue share of barriers.

To reduce prototypicality threat among members of majority groups, and thus forestall backlash against DEI efforts, organisations must also act proactively. Research shows that the more members of a majority/dominant group believe that their overrepresentation is legitimate, the more susceptible they are to feeling threatened by an increase in diversity.

One way that organisations may unintentionally lend legitimacy to dominant group prototypicality is by defining success in terms of traits that are stereotypically associated with the dominant group. For example, historically masculine professions might overemphasise the importance of assertiveness and strength, etc., in things like employee evaluations and recruiting materials that communicate what it takes to be a good employee. Making sure the definition of the organisation as a whole doesn’t align with the stereotypes of the majority group will help dispel myths that the majority group is naturally better suited for their job.

As we move towards more diverse and inclusive workplaces, organisations should be aware of these identity threats and strive to reduce their impact. By focusing only on highly accessible and obvious sources of tension, such as explicit prejudice, or anxiety about competition over jobs, organisations run the risk of overlooking the powerful undercurrent of identity threats and the negative psychological and interpersonal outcomes that can follow.

Clarissa Cortland and Felix Danbold are Assistant Professors in the Organisations and Innovation Group at University College London School of Management.

Being a woman leader: ‘man – I feel like a woman’

In 2020, we should be creating organisations where all genders can thrive without adopting the dominant male stereotype, argues Veronica Hope Hailey

I went to university to study for my undergraduate degree in 1975, the same year in which the UK’s first Sex Discrimination Act was passed and the country’s Equality Opportunities Commission was established.

When I entered the world of business, I believed that ability, competence and hard work would get you where you wanted to go. I did not know what I wanted to do and was content that my own lack of direction might be a self-crafted obstacle. I did not believe my gender was going to be a problem. After all, we had an Act of Parliament to protect us against gender discrimination. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m sure I wasn’t conscious of it at that time, but looking back over my career I agree with Margaret Heffernan’s book, The Naked Truth, in which she says: ‘Being smart and working hard are entry-level requirements. But they won’t protect you from the weird experience of being a businesswoman in a world that remains dominated by men and their values. The companies we see today were built by men for men. Reluctantly, grudgingly, women were granted access – at first just to lowly positions but, when self-interest was served, to more powerful positions. We called this “progress”. But everything comes at a price. The price was that we had to behave in ways that men could be comfortable with: we mustn’t frighten them, threaten them, usurp them, or in any way disturb their universe.’

Maintaining perspective

As one reaches the top levels of management, these words remain true; perhaps even more so. Despite working in a seemingly more liberal non-corporate environment than most senior women, I still have the experience of walking into some meetings, dinners or board summits to find myself the only woman in the room. Or, if there are other women there, we are still a significant minority. 

‘Mansplaining’ remains rife. If you don’t know what this word means, Google the feminist author, Rebecca Solnit, who says, ‘men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologised for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t’. In the face of mansplaining, I find there is the risk that in sticking up for myself with evidence of greater knowledge, I will be seen as difficult, or boastful, rather than more experienced.

So what helps me persist? A sense of the absurd, a sense of perspective and a sense of humour are important qualities for any senior manager. I also have the blessing of a large family and the most unlikely feminist husband one could encounter who has been 100% supportive of me as a person, whether I want to be a mother, a rodeo rider or a vicar. He is my greatest critic and my greatest friend. 

I am very fortunate to have another life to fall back into when persisting seems too hard in a very male senior environment. This ‘other life’ has not only been a source of comfort for me, but also a rich source of leadership development. I have built the majority of my personal resilience through dealing with tragedies and challenges in my personal life. At an early age, I was forced into needed, but unexpected, leadership roles that later equipped me brilliantly, at a psychological level, with the mental strength required to be a dean. 

If I returned home stressed or moaning, my husband often asked: ‘Did anyone die, Vron?’ Of course, my answer was always ‘no’, to which he would reply, ‘well, it’s been a good day then’. Dear women readers – do not write off experiences in your personal spheres as tangential to your development and suitability for leadership.

Challenging bias

Leadership can be a lonely and exposed place for anyone, but it can be particularly so for those who find themselves in a minority. In addition, some of the pioneering women leaders of my generation have only succeeded, as Margaret Heffernan describes, by developing a Margaret Thatcher-like carapace as part of their leadership style, taking on extreme versions of the dominant male stereotype. This does not really tackle the problem and, even if women take on these extreme characteristics, they will still never gain entry to the ‘boys club’.

Instead, those of us who are even modestly senior must try to maintain a sense of our true self, use our positions to promote the cause of the next generation of women, and challenge bias (whether conscious or unconscious) when we see it. We also need to ensure that the new constellation of female stars have leadership development opportunities that enable them to achieve their full potential while maintaining an authenticity around their own set of values. 

I feel very strongly that, in 2020, we can, and should, expect our senior male colleagues to call out sexist behaviour not ‘for’ us but ‘with’ us. Men – don’t hide behind comforting words such as your ‘concern’ about the numbers of women in leadership roles. Do something about making those roles and teams healthy places for women to join.

I am hopeful that the paths taken by my five daughters and their friends will be easier than mine, and I want to support their career journeys so that they are increasingly able to develop organisations that have been created by men and women as places in which all genders can thrive. For me, ‘thriving’ would mean that my daughters and their partners could flourish in their workplaces without having to do daily combat with unconsciously held, but biased, expectations on how the two main sexes might contribute or should behave.

Veronica Hope Hailey is University Vice President for External Engagement at the University of Bath and the former Dean of the University of Bath School of Management.

Meritocracy, bias, and success: reward and recognition for diverse groups

Developing reward and recognition systems for the diverse individuals that make up successful groups could boost access to fair credit, writes Eugenie Hunsicker

I have been involved in diversity initiatives in the sciences for decades. During this time, there have been tremendous efforts in many areas, with particular improvements in policies relating to returning from maternity leave and flexible working. An Athena Swan initiative to celebrate the advancement of gender equality in higher education institutions has also put pressure on departments to consider carefully how all aspects of the work environment should be improved for gender equity.

But progression of women to the top academic ranks has remained stubbornly and depressingly low. In my home discipline of mathematics, the proportion of the professoriate who are women has increased in the UK from 6% in 2011 to 11% in 2016 – a large proportional increase, but overall, still nowhere near parity. 

In a recent conversation about gender diversity in UK universities, one colleague mentioned that, at her university, they had analysed how long it would take the institution to reach gender parity among the professoriate based on continuing with current practices. They discovered that due to having far fewer female academic applicants, a slower rate of female promotion, and greater female turnover, the answer was ‘never’. 

Surely, significant change is an imperative within higher education. Similar stories emerge from business, with the proportion of (white) women managers in US companies with more than 100 employees remaining constant at 29% since 2000, according to a 2016 Harvard Business Review article.

Within academia, promotion has traditionally been based on an individual’s ability to secure funding for, and publish, research. When we look at these factors, we see right away why women are still struggling to reach the highest levels at the same rate as men: they neither publish as much nor obtain research funding in the same quantities as male counterparts (according to an Elsevier report on research performance through the lens of gender, and analysis of data from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, respectively).  

On average, women simply don’t measure up in the standard metrics. Some of this is likely to be due to unequal burdens in areas other than research – an issue that universities can – and should – continue to address. But, even given equal research time, as a woman in science, it’s hard not to feel that the deck is stacked against you subtly in ways that individual universities cannot change. 

This is the frustrated mindset I found myself in a year ago when a colleague pointed me to the ‘No heroes’ blog by the London School of Economics philosopher, Liam Kofi Bright. The blog starts: ‘I am opposed to meritocracy,’ which, at first, was a shock to me. After all, surely meritocracy is the right system. But a few hours reading the papers cited there opened my eyes, and meritocracy has become my rant of the year.


The term ‘meritocracy’ was coined by sociologist, Michael Young, in his satirical 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. In a 2001 column for the Guardian, he describes his horror at the current use of the word as a positive. He writes: ‘It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others… It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.’

These ideas were taken up again in an article by the author, philosopher and former management consultant, Matthew Stewart, in a 2018 article for The Atlantic, which echoes Young’s ideas: ‘The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.’ 

Specifically, the problem with merit as a means of judging individuals is not in its generic usage, but rather when ‘merit’ becomes hardened into a particular set of criteria, the design and award of which are controlled by those who are deemed to already have it, and which are then used to limit inclusion in the new meritocracy.   


Both Young and Stewart are primarily concerned here with meritocracy as a means of reinforcing class division. But social class is not the only line along which privilege is divided, and reward systems focused on merit have been shown to convey benefit or disadvantage along the lines of gender and race.

In their groundbreaking 2010 paper, ‘The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organisations’, MIT Sloan Management Professor, Emilio Castilla, and Indiana University Sociology Professor, Stephen Bernard, investigated ‘whether gender and racial inequality persists in spite of management’s efforts to promote meritocracy or even because of such meritocratic efforts’. 

They carried out a study in which individuals in managerial positions were asked to make decisions about bonus pay for various employee profiles. They manipulated the gender of the employees in these profiles, as well as whether the company’s core values emphasised meritocracy in evaluations and compensation. They found that, when primed with ‘non-meritocratic’ company values, men and women were given equal bonuses, on average – $399.66 USD for men and $401.66 USD for women. However, when primed with ‘meritocratic’ company values, men were given an average bonus of $420.10 USD, compared to women’s $374.02 USD.  

Castilla and Bernard point to two possible explanations for this phenomenon. One is that, in contexts in which people are primed to believe that they are unbiased, fair or objective, studies have found that they are more likely to behave in biased ways. For instance, when individuals have been given the opportunity to disagree with sexist statements, and therefore establish their credentials as unbiased individuals, they are more likely, subsequently, to choose a male candidate over a female one.    

The second explanation relates to the idea that when people feel more objective, they become more confident that their beliefs are valid, as demonstrated in a 2007 paper co-authored by INSEAD’s Eric Luis Uhlmann
(then at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management) and Stanford GSB’s Geoffrey Cohen (then at the University of Colorado, Boulder).

Blind orchestra auditions and their effect on the proportions of women hired is a well-known example in work on bias and diversity (see box on page 32). Iris Bohnet from the Harvard Kennedy School has pointed out, in an interview for the Harvard Business Review, that moves towards blind auditions met with resistance from orchestra directors: ‘Note that this [change in proportion of women] didn’t result from changing mindsets. In fact, some of the most famous orchestra directors at the time were convinced that they didn’t need curtains because they, of all people, certainly focused on the quality of the music and not whether somebody looked the part. The evidence told a different story.’

Lauren Rivera, Professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has investigated another mechanism through which an emphasis on merit can in fact result in biased decisions, described in the 2015 book, Pedigree. In a study in which she observed discussions in a firm after the first round of interviews, she found that different demographic groups were subjected to greater scrutiny with regards to different aspects of merit. 

For example, the mathematical skills of women, together with those defined as ‘black’, were much more often questioned than those defined as ‘Indian’ or ‘white men’. Among candidates who made minor mistakes in mathematics, women were rejected for not having the right skills, while men were given a pass, with interviewers assuming they were having an ‘off’ day.  

The same effect is reflected in academia. In a 2017 study of publications in economics, University of Liverpool Lecturer, Erin Hengel, found that, in measures of readability, papers by women in economics journals score 1-6% better than those authored by men, and that the readability of papers by women increases over their careers, while that of those authored by men does not. 

Furthermore, by comparing pre-released versions of papers with published versions, she determined that peer review is directly responsible for about half of this difference. With the additional burden of scrutiny placed on women authors, their lower publication rate can be seen as a result of bias demonstrated by the ‘guardians’ of publishing – referees already among the subject elite – in their judgement of the merit of works submitted.

The success of groups

Recently, there has been considerable work on the benefits of diversity to the success of organisations. The 2015 McKinsey report, Diversity Matters, found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely than companies in the bottom quartile to have financial returns above the national median in their industry, and that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely. 

In academia, the majority of published work is collaborative, and studies have shown that in some areas, co-authored papers are more likely to be published in top journals and more likely to be cited. Interestingly, studies by Anita Wooley of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business have shown that the success of groups is not very strongly correlated to individual measures of intelligence (which are correlated to individual success). Wooley and her colleagues found that group success was better predicted by such measures as social sensitivity, turn-taking and the proportion of women in the group.    

However, as is pointed out by the University of Arizona’s Justin Bruner (then at the Australian National University) and Cailin O’Connor, a Professor at the University of California, Irvine, in their 2015 paper, ‘Power, Bargaining and Collaboration’, although success comes from the work of groups, rewards for successful work, such as promotion and raises, accrue to individuals.Their paper demonstrated a model to show how the hierarchical structure of academia can, in particular, lead to the disadvantage of underrepresented groups in bargaining for the credit for group success. Indeed, most individuals viewed by society as exceptionally successful, such as Bill Gates, are seen this way in large part due to society crediting them with the success that is, in fact, the work of a large group. History is rife with examples of individuals, such as Rosalind Franklin (DNA) and Katherine Johnson (Apollo programme) whose critical contribution to group successes have been credited to others who were in a better social position to claim them.  

This suggests one way forward that addresses the difficulties we experience due to a focus on meritocracy (which generally focuses on individuals and on particular characteristics, such as educational success, which are known to be socially linked). That way is to work on developing reward and recognition systems for the diverse individuals that make up successful groups. 

This would involve broad awareness of everyone who contributes to a group and the formulation of reward and recognition systems that provide fairer access to credit for its less prestigious members. This is a difficult challenge, but one that promises both a more equitable treatment of all who contribute, and increased success through the ability to attract and retain more diverse teams to meet the complex challenges that modern society poses.

Eugenie Hunsicker is a data scientist at Loughborough University, where she is also the Director for Equality and Diversity in the School of Science.

She is involved with equality, diversity and inclusion work at a national level, as the Chair of the Women in Mathematics Committee of the London Mathematical Society, Deputy Chair of the Athena Forum and a member of the steering group of the Women in Data Science and Statistics special interest group at the Royal Statistical Society. 

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