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.

Meritocracy

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.   

Bias

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. 

How social mobility relates to the world of business and leadership

Businesses and leaders need to stand up and take action to create a more diverse socioeconomic and ethnically diverse background because graduates like yourselves, don’t just demand equality – they expect it, says Simon Bell

Social mobility is a serious issue for countries and their economy. It is accepted that people’s families and fortunes are major factors in life outcomes. In an ideal world, futures should be controlled by talent and hard work, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case. Social mobility is extremely complex and businesses can play a major role in being part of the solution.

The Social Mobility Foundation and the Social Mobility Commission ranks top firms on the actions they are taking. Employers are big influencers on society and according to the Civil Service, when applying for jobs you’ll see the introduction of questions surrounding candidates’ education and parents’ jobs in the recruitment process. Creating a fair and robust candidate selection process is vital to change the world of business and leadership.

What is social mobility?

Attention to social mobility for individuals and families can help give the ability and opportunity to advance within a society. It can help enable them to reach their true potential in terms of: income, employment, education, place/postcode and perceived social status.

Social mobility is currently a hot topic worldwide. When you’re born into a family on a low income, you’re less likely to have the same opportunities as someone from a more privileged background despite your talent and determination. Business and leaders can be at the forefront of breaking this barrier to improve equality in employment.

Challenging stereotypes

A large gap in social mobility still exists, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less than half as likely to achieve passes in English and Maths at GCSE level. Who gets the best jobs is strongly influenced by family backgrounds. This is creating a growing gap in society between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. It not only negatively impacts individuals but also affects economies worldwide. For business, a lack of diverse representation can have a serious impact commercially.

A diverse workforce increases productivity and creativity, which will have a positive impact on the world of business. If your colleagues were all from a similar background and similar universities then there will be no room for challenging perceptions, growth and thinking outside the box to find solutions. Inevitably, a diverse workforce = a productive workforce.

The Global Social Mobility Index highlights how only a small number of nations have the right conditions to adapt to social mobility. These countries include Denmark, who have a social mobility score of 85.2, which is followed by Finland (83.6), Sweden (83.5) and Iceland (82.7). These results were measured by quality and fairness in education as well as ensuring good working conditions and opportunities are available to all.

The results show that governments and businesses must work to level the playing field. Social mobility isn’t about going from council estate to CEO, but it is about helping to make sure career guidance, labour market information and recruitment opportunities are available to everyone. Its focus is all about not having your options limited by lack of opportunities due to your background. Joining forces with people from different environments brings new perspectives and alternative experiences to organisations. Rejecting diversity narrows ideas. Moving away from this can bring a variety of ideologies, therefore, improving access to a diverse range of potential candidates and employees is a necessity for business to reflect society and the markets they service.

How does social mobility make you feel?

It’s often said that class can feel less fluid than gender. It can make you feel stuck and tied down to where you come from. Some of you may be able to relate to social mobility already. Maybe you’ve experienced the difficulty of the journey: what it means to be the first in your family to gain a professional job which is well-paid or to be the first one to secure your place at university. Tackling the challenge of social mobility with innovative insights is vital. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel as more businesses are taking a hands on approach to creating a fairer world of work.

Are you less likely to apply for a position as a graduate if addressing social mobility is not on the hiring organisations agenda? You’re not the only one! According to research from the Graduate Recruitment App Debut, more than a third of young people (35%) within the UK would decline to join a business that is primarily made up of middle and upper class employees.

As many as 80% of people from privileged backgrounds are more likely to end up in a white collar role as opposed to their working class peers. Nearly half of poorer workers haven’t had the opportunity to train since leaving school (49%), in comparison to 20% of the richest adults. This lack of further education or training limits the potential for career progression.

There is a strong correlation between high levels of income inequality and reduced levels of social mobility. If your parents are highly paid then you’re more likely to be highly paid in comparison to children of parents who are poorer or living in child poverty caused by educational inequality.

What drives social mobility?

Education and businesses have the potential to drive social mobility forward. Educational institutes should give equal opportunities to all their pupils regardless of social status. Many universities are working hard to give opportunities to those young people who may have not had anyone in their family attend university. Without this support and advice from parents, a young person is unlikely to think that it is for them. University outreach can help cross this barrier. Gaining higher qualifications can lead to better and more well paid job opportunities.

Schools should provide access to labour market information about where jobs are located and what individuals can expect to be paid. Having this kind of career information can show that some jobs are paid much better than others and it helps young people make a well informed decision on their futures. It can change the direction of career travel and choice of qualification pathways.

Businesses have a key role to play in helping to create social mobility. By ensuring a fair recruitment process with fair opportunities available, regardless of social status and background, they can create a rich and diverse workforce. Having business leaders from a varied background and not just those from money, provides role models and leaders who have empathy with their staff. When adapting this approach employers will start to see a positive approach in dynamic individuals who all have different ways of thinking. 

Looking at what you know now, you’ll be able to see how social mobility relates to the world of business and leadership. Businesses and leaders need to stand up and take action to create a more diverse socioeconomic and ethnically diverse background. Graduates like yourselves, don’t just demand equality they expect it and rightly so.

Simon Bell is the Founder and Director of careermap.co.uk, an online careers resource for students, graduates, career advisers and teachers. Careermap provides career support, live vacancies and best practice for schools, colleges and universities.

Is diversity and inclusion an empty phrase?

Global trends in female representation and cultural diversity at board level, and the importance of diversity and inclusion policies, from Elena Philipova, Global Head of ESG at fintech data firm, Refinitiv.

Do you know this classic riddle? A father and son are involved in a car crash and are rushed to the hospital. The father dies, but the boy is taken to the operating room. The hospital bans surgeons from treating close relatives, so the doctor takes one look at the patient and says, ‘I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.’

How is this possible?

Those who have difficulty with this riddle are unable to imagine that the surgeon is a woman and, therefore, the boy’s mother.

A similar principle applies in the business world where some find it hard to imagine a woman as a company CEO, or a member of a cultural minority on a firm’s board of directors.

The varied picture on D&I

Developing a diverse workforce through policies of inclusion is no longer a theoretical concept. In today’s complex global marketplace, a company with a workforce that reflects the community in which it operates has a better chance of producing superior financial results – and rewarding investors.

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is an issue which is often given lip service – but a deeper look at the data produces a varied picture.

More than 7,000 companies globally are ranked by the Refinitiv D&I Index, enabling it to identify the top 100 publicly traded companies with the most diverse and inclusive workplaces, as measured by 24 separate metrics across four key pillars. The data used to create the index is taken from the Refinitiv Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) database, from which recent analysis has highlighted some interesting D&I trends.

Trends in board-level gender and cultural diversity

For instance, the percentage of companies reporting on their boards’ gender diversity soared to 98% in 2017 from 60% in 2013, among companies that have had an ESG score for the last five years. However, these same companies seem to have a harder time reporting on their boards’ cultural diversity – the proportion doing this rose to 31% in 2017, from 21% in 2013.

When it comes to the actual level of diversity found on boards, it looks like many of those companies haven’t taken the necessary steps to create more balanced gender representation. Women held a disappointing 18% of board seats in public companies, up from 12% in 2013, while culturally diverse directors made up nearly 29%, roughly even with the figure of 30% from 2013.

Quotas may seem like a radical idea to many, but France has mandated that at least 40% of board members at companies in the CAC 40 stock index must be female since 2017. With quotas also in place in Germany and Italy, Europe was found to be leading the way, with 26% female board membership. The equivalent proportion in North America was 20%, while Japan placed bottom, with 5%.

 

Europe also led the charts for boards’ cultural diversity, at 35%, with Japan again bringing up the rear, at 12%. Switzerland was the top country for boards’ cultural diversity, at 56%, which is perhaps not surprising in a country with four official languages. The US ‘melting pot’ is among countries with the least culturally diverse company boards, at just 13%.

The business case for D&I and company-wide diversity

Drilling down into an organisation from the board level, it is critically important for companies to develop diverse talent from within and to invest in the future leaders of the business.

Companies that are serious about creating and benefiting from diverse and inclusive workplaces use information like the one powering the Refinitiv D&I Index to inform their strategies, measure progress and communicate with stakeholders – and the investment community is watching closely. The business case for D&I is compelling as more institutional investors use ESG metrics to enhance their investment strategies and inform their thematic solutions, such as the practice of ‘gender lens investing’.

Aside from the boardroom, many companies report on the diversity of their workforce as a whole. Here, we see an improvement in the gender balance, but at a much slower pace over the last five years. The percentage of female employees edged up to 35% in 2017, from 33% in 2013. The percentage of female managers, meanwhile stood at 27% in 2017, compared to 25% in 2013, although this proportion was substantially higher, at 35%, in 2016.

A diverse workforce also includes people with disabilities, a segment of the population that has frequently faced barriers to employment. Progress here has been promising, although a lot more could be done by businesses. The number of companies reporting on percentages of employees with disabilities is still very low, at 17% as of 2017, despite this being an increase from 9% in 2013.

So where are these trends going? Some 85% of companies in the ESG database have a D&I policy, but just 17% report D&I targets against this policy. Companies need to be committed to delivering against those policies and investors need to flag the companies that are following through with some real progress.

Management training and career development tracks

There are some promising trends around management training and policies for career development – crucial for attracting talent and maintaining a positive company culture. The percentage of companies with management training soared to 66% from 35%, and 78% of companies in the database now have career development tracks, up from 40%. Among geographic regions, Europe was the standout performer in both areas, with North America trailing.

In the future, D&I information will become an increasingly important indicator for investors as we are able to successfully overcome gender stereotypes illustrated in the riddle above. We need to push for greater transparency and standardisation on this information and other  metrics measured by ESG. That way, we will be better able to understand the linkages between diverse teams and sustainable financial growth, and make more informed investment decisions.

Elena Philipova is Global Head of ESG at Refinitiv. Learn more about the diversity and inclusion ratings created using Refinitiv ESG data.

How to foster gender balance and inclusion

Vlerick Business School has developed a method for assessing and improving inclusion within organisations, writes Katleen De Stobbeleir

Reflecting society’s diversity within business has become a topical and pressing issue as leaders come to understand that embracing difference within the workforce, and listening to a range of perspectives, will benefit their organisations. One important element of diversity is gender balance; the UN has named gender equality as one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved before 2030. There have been many successful efforts to tackle this issue, both in business and wider society, but huge strides are still needed to create a truly equal and inclusive environment.

This mission involves tackling gender imbalances in business and ensuring women can participate fully and have equal opportunities in leadership and decision making, but many businesses struggle to put in place methods and initiatives to achieve this.

 A common way in which companies address this is to look at the number of women in their teams, in management positions, and on their boards. They may invest in the recruitment and promotion of women and set quotas for women in management roles. Governments and trade bodies support this agenda, with the European Union proposing that there should be a 40% quota for women on company boards within all organisations. 

But a focus on the numbers is only half the story. Simply boosting the number of female employees within organisations, so that there is an even split, does not automatically allow businesses to benefit from diversity. And putting too much emphasis on quotas can have the opposite effect to that desired. 

Speaking to employers as part of my consulting projects at Vlerick Business School, I have learned that many companies have diversity initiatives in place, but are still not seeing the practical benefits. So why are organisations still struggling to make diversity ‘work’ for them?

Diversity and inclusion

Focusing on diversity only reaps rewards when organisations also actively foster an open and inclusive environment for their staff. Organisations must create a culture of both diversity and inclusion (D&I), not simply one or the other.

Many organisations are implementing what they believe to be transparent, sophisticated and well thought-out diversity initiatives, and expect there to be a direct correlation between their level of investment in these initiatives and enhanced levels of creativity and productivity within their organisation. This, however, is not the case, and when it comes to maximising D&I, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

To help individual firms measure workforce D&I and to understand what they are doing well, and what needs improvement, I worked with an established research team to create Vlerick’s inclusion scan, which assesses organisations and offers them advice on how to improve. 

How the scan works 

The first element of the scan is a questionnaire for HR and D&I professionals, to assess how they are working to improve gender balance within their processes and procedures. This focuses on seven strategic areas: vision and strategic policy, leadership, HR and personnel policy, internal communication, quality assurance and monitoring, agreements with external stakeholders, and diversity networking. The second part considers employees’ perspectives. This is less about company initiatives and more about how employees feel. Staff are asked how included they feel within their team; whether or not they can express themselves freely and openly; whether they feel themselves to be ‘different’ from their colleagues, and whether they feel that they contribute to a greater purpose in the organisation. 

After collating the answers, my team and I are able to ascertain the organisation’s level of maturity in terms of inclusion. In this way, the scan makes each organisation aware of its current position with regards to inclusivity, and its areas for improvement.

Feedback provided to organisations aims to reflect on their current initiatives and analyse how effectively they are working. It highlights areas in which they are struggling, or policies that are not helping to create an inclusive environment. 

As well as enabling organisations to become more inclusive, the scan sparks a wider discussion around diversity and demonstrates the importance of adopting an inclusive culture not just in business, but also in society as a whole. 

Enhancing inclusion

There are many steps, large and small, that organisations can take to create a more inclusive culture, but to identify these, a tailored approach and customised strategy are required.

For example, all-women networks allow female employees to connect and share opinions on current initiatives and the inclusivity of the working environment. Reverse mentoring, meanwhile, involves women regularly sharing their perspectives on inclusivity with senior management.

Sponsoring is an underused, yet effective, way to help women feel included in the organisation’s practices. This involves senior management coaching younger, more diverse members of staff, and taking a level of responsibility for their career progression. They are charged with creating opportunities for these staff members to develop and progress within the company. 

Inclusivity is about giving everyone in the organisation a voice, and the ability to express their opinions. Meetings are a small-scale example of this, where shy and reserved workers may struggle to speak up, and feel overlooked as a result. Changing your meeting culture to ensure everyone is able to have their say is an important way to ensure all workers feel represented. 

In addition, people often act differently to the way they think, which can be a result of their wish to hold up a particular public image, or  something that is just an unconscious process. By uncovering these forms of bias, a more inclusive culture can be created.

None of the above examples will improve inclusivity in each and every organisation, which is why the scan offers tailored solutions. One solution may work for one workplace but not for another. Therefore, a customised mixture of policies and initiatives is the best way to improve inclusivity. 

The benefits of inclusion for organisations

When diversity is accompanied by inclusivity, it can only benefit businesses. Organisations with a visible environment for D&I better reflect society and are likely to be viewed in a more favourable light, commercially speaking. However, there are a number of internal benefits too.

When leveraged correctly, the various perspectives and skills contributed by a diverse workforce can lead to enhanced creativity and productivity – positively impacting on the organisation’s financial performance as a result. The different ideas articulated by a more diverse range of voices will also allow firms to be as innovative as possible and challenge an industry’s status quo. 

Firms that do not have this diversity of thought can stagnate and miss out on innovation and growth opportunities. Ultimately, they may become stuck in their ways, growing increasingly irrelevant and unrepresentative of customers and wider society. 

Not only does an inclusive culture nurture the most creative, productive and innovative staff possible, it also helps organisations to attract and retain top talent and supports collaboration within teams, enhancing wellbeing by creating an environment in which everyone is heard.

Multilayered approach

Taking a multilayered approach to inclusion is the key to success. To foster an inclusive environment, organisations must have leaders who are committed to the cause, a strong HR policy around inclusivity, and employees who feel included and are able to help their colleagues feel the same way. If these three areas are addressed, an organisation will be well on the way to achieving maximum inclusivity and will begin to reap the benefits of an inclusive culture.

Katleen De Stobbeleir is a Professor of Leadership and Coaching at Vlerick Business School. She is also Head of the Vlerick Women Inclusion Scan Research Project, alongside senior Vlerick researchers, Angie Van Steerthem and Evelien de Ferrerre, and non-profit consultancy, KliQ vzw. 

How you can help address diversity and unconscious bias in the workplace

Every employee can do something to minimise the impact of unconscious biases, and new recruits are particularly well positioned to help organisations improve their diversity policies, says Trevor Sterling, Partner at UK law firm, Moore Blatch

When starting a new job, there are many things to get to grips with – a new commute, getting to know your colleagues and a different style of working.

But, alongside the exciting opportunities, I would also encourage you to look at your organisation’s diversity policy – with a fresh perspective and outlook, you are an invaluable resource for suggested upgrades and improvements. Taking the time to make suggestions also gives you a great opportunity to make your mark and get noticed early on.  

Obstacles and gaps in awareness

A 2019 study from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that most company leaders, who are primarily white heterosexual males, still underestimate the challenges diverse employees face. These are the leaders who control the budgets and get to decide which diversity programmes to pursue.

For those entering new roles, after a career move or graduate schemes which have elements of learning and training embedded, there is a wonderful opportunity to spot where a company’s gaps may be, in terms of addressing diversity.

Every employee can do something to minimise the impact of unconscious biases and discrimination, no matter their position, and this is particularly true when you enter a new organisation. Taking action to effect positive changes should also improve morale at work, help build stronger relationships between colleagues and, ultimately, help retain talented staff. 

Unconscious biases

One of the biggest restrictions to increasing diversity may be unconscious biases. Everyone has unconscious biases but failing to address these creates a cycle in which companies continue to hire those that act, think and look similar to themselves.

Sadly, the BCG study also found that more than a third of diverse employees said ‘yes’ when asked if they see obstacles to diversity and inclusion at their company. In addition, half said they do not believe that their companies have the right mechanisms in place to ensure that major decisions are free from bias.

Recognise your own biases

There are always things you can do to ensure you minimise your own unconscious biases and help encourage diversity within your workplace.

If you are a newer employee, it may be easier for you to see the issues which surround diversity and you may even experience it firsthand. You may also need to be honest with yourself about the stereotypes that affect you and your decisions. There are various tests you can take, for example, those developed by researchers at Harvard, but it’s possible to spot these for yourself in day-to-day interactions. Watch how you react to situations and people when you are tired, under pressure and stressed. When these emotions and moods are felt, you are more likely to allow your subconscious thoughts to become visible. Researchers have also suggested that simply thinking about positive situations, such as your interactions with a group towards whom you may have a bias, can limit your unconscious biases.

How we are addressing unconscious bias

From my own experience as a legal professional with a BAME background, there have certainly been times where I have missed out on opportunities in my career due to unconscious bias from those around me.

For example, I noticed subtle issues arising with colleagues at a previous firm that I believe were down to cultural differences. These instances, which did not involve arguments or questions relating to my work, escalated to the point where it was suggested that I be moved from my field of expertise on to stress cases, effectively sidelining me.

I mention this not to relay to you my career ups and downs, but to make the point that having achieved a degree of success in an identical role in the field of law has only strengthened my belief that I was on the receiving end of unconscious bias at my previous firm. It is experiences like these that led to my involvement in the Mary Seacole Trust, a UK organisation that campaigns for equality and promotes diverse leadership in both the private and public sectors.

At my current law firm, we have addressed the issue of unconscious bias directly by making training in this area a key priority for all partners and managers. This has raised our employees’ awareness of the types of bias and discrimination traps that people can fall into and has created a more inclusive working environment as a result. We have also taken more direct measures, such as ensuring that there is ethnic representation on the firm’s pay and promotion committees.

No matter what level of seniority you currently hold, it’s important for you to express your opinion if there are ways in which you believe your company can improve their diversity initiatives. It may feel like your opinion’s value will be limited if you’re new, or in a more junior role. But, in reality, there is ample opportunity for you to express your opinion and to help improve the company as a whole. This is something which the senior leadership team and other colleagues will inevitably be thankful for.

Trevor Sterling is Major Trauma Partner at UK law firm, Moore Blatch.

Diversity and recruiting the optimal MBA cohort

Diverse cohorts broaden students’ minds and skill sets, equipping them for the global marketplace and future leadership roles, writes HEC Paris’ Andrea Masini

In the past few decades, there has been a dramatic focus on the makeup of MBA cohorts in terms of nationality, academic and professional background, gender, religion, sexual orientation and other factors. This comes as little surprise, given that today’s employers are interested in hiring candidates who have experience navigating diverse, cross-cultural environments.

While diversity spans numerous characteristics, it is geographical diversity that is most often referred to in business education. We know that students are best prepared for top international jobs when they have a proven track record of working with people from different backgrounds. Just imagine the wisdom our students acquire when they work in small groups to solve complex business problems with, for instance, a tech whizz from Berlin, a policymaker from Egypt and a former Olympic athlete from South America. 

More responsible leaders

Success in an international career is no mean feat. Global managers have to be able to relate to people from different backgrounds, and to consider how they will think and react in various situations, particularly under pressure. The MBA provides these opportunities on an almost daily basis, creating better, more responsible leaders. These leaders of tomorrow will already have been challenged and confronted by opposing political ideas and conflicting beliefs by the time they reach managerial positions. They will not only be familiar with a whole spectrum of contrasting ideas, but they’ll know how to work best with the people who hold them. 

More than this, working with a diverse group of individuals helps students develop their soft skills effectively. For example, at HEC Paris, we send all of our MBA students to a bootcamp at Saint-Cyr, the prominent French military academy. This annual seminar is specifically designed to improve team-leadership skills through a series of increasingly difficult tasks supervised by leadership experts. Students must work in teams to achieve a common goal – and it reveals some important lessons.

Recently, I witnessed a shy student from Asia discover the solution to one of the Saint-Cyr challenges. Her nine teammates – who were more dominant, Western MBA candidates – loudly offered their own thoughts to the point that she gave up trying to tell them her idea. They failed the task. Since no one had heard the one team member who had the solution, the whole group learned an important lesson about their own cultural norms and the need to listen to every voice.

Having a diverse cohort allows these lessons to filter through the whole programme. MBA programmes usually consist of group work, and every person’s skill set is invaluable to the rest of team. Students develop the tools to understand diversity – from nationality to religious beliefs and sexual orientation – and see how they can work with, and benefit from, these differences. 

Opposing ideas that broaden the mindset

While most MBA candidates share some important characteristics, such as a desire pursue excellence and a willingness to work hard, they will discover new or opposing ideas that broaden their mindsets. Diversity offers practical benefits, too. 

Many people join MBA programmes with the desire to learn new languages, for example, and spend time with students whose first language they are keen to learn. At HEC Paris, our MBA candidates must be proficient in three languages when they graduate. Students learn from each other both in classroom settings and in informal social settings. Russian students connect with French students, for example, and they pick up new languages through their friendships. 

Cultural events

A diverse cohort is also a lot of fun. Students plan cultural events and invite their classmates, the faculty and the local community along to enjoy them. From cultural weeks that focus on traditional food and activities to various celebrations, such as Holi – the Hindu festival of colours – diversity enriches campus life. For example, for last year’s Nigerian Independence Day, our Nigerian students cooked a traditional dinner for the entire MBA student body. When we celebrated Holi at HEC Paris, Indian students organised a wonderfully flamboyant celebration with the local town mayor. It really was like New Delhi came to Jouy-en-Josas.

Despite cultural diversity stealing most of the focus, we can’t ignore our students’ work experience. Students should be able to learn from a wide range of professionals, from economists and doctors to engineers and bankers. Past employers among recent HEC MBA cohorts have ranged from Microsoft to the Peace Corps. Former job titles, meanwhile, have included everything from Air Traffic Controller for the Israeli Air Force to consultants from JP Morgan and McKinsey. We have even had the Acting Creative Excellence Manager for Coca-Cola in Pakistan and Afghanistan among recent cohorts of students. 

Achieving career transformation

Exposure to such a variety of peers is particularly important if students want to achieve career transformation. The close friendships they make during the MBA programme will invariably include people from other countries and industries. Finance professionals can look to the tech specialists, for instance, while managers from commerce can learn from those who come from global consultancies. 

This is a key reason why diversity really pays off at Business School – a more diverse MBA class transforms into a more diverse professional network. Students create global links with points of contact around the world that last for their whole careers. 

Students who choose to study abroad already have a head start. They immediately open themselves up to another culture, ready to absorb ideas that can help them far into the future. By spending time in France, students pick up aspects of the country’s heritage easily. That might mean being able to order the right wine at a business dinner, or holding conversations about art and history. 

Still, not all MBA programmes place such a high value on having a diverse MBA class. Many students tell us that they chose HEC Paris because diversity is at the heart of our programme. Every HEC student profile is unique and atypical. For this reason, students come to HEC Paris ready and willing to accept other people’s ideas. 

We are extremely proud of our diversity, and we work to ensure it at every step of the selection process. In perusing the quality international applicants that form a talented and diverse MBA cohort, some Schools are largely able to rely on their reputation. While HEC Paris is globally visible and receives exceptional applications from across the globe, our MBA marketing managers still travel the world to meet applicants personally and introduce them to HEC Paris. Today, our cohort is 93% international – those people are all from outside France – and comprises more than 50 nationalities. We are one of the most diverse MBA programmes in the world. 

Celebrating diversity

Once students join the programme, this diversity is both celebrated and utilised. The idea is never to enforce a level of standardisation, but to leverage each person’s uniqueness, their values, understanding and experiences. 

After all, the world is changing. Companies operate across borders and technology continues to break down barriers. The business leaders of the future should be able to experience how international companies work as soon as they join an MBA programme. We take this mandate very seriously at the HEC Paris MBA. 

Andrea Masini is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean, HEC Paris MBA. He holds a PhD in management from INSEAD. Prior to joining HEC Paris in 2010, Andrea was Assistant Professor of Operations and Technology Management at London Business School. He has a background in mechanical engineering and environmental management.

Meeting India’s demand for business education with responsibility

How Mumbai’s Athena School of Management aims to change the parameters of traditional management education in India

India’s burgeoning young and aspirational population ensures an ‘insatiable’ demand for quality business education, according to Aditya Singh, Director of Athena School of Management in Mumbai.

This underlines the importance of the place held by the country’s Business Schools in society, their responsibility towards it, and their potential to make an impact.

‘A good business programme is not only about a qualification,’ says Singh, cautioning   against the ‘commoditisation of business education’.

In the following interview, with Business Impact’s Content Editor Tim Dhoul, Singh outlines the approach and ambitions of Athena School of Management, encompassing the importance it attaches to internships and experiential learning as well as the value of community work.   

Demand for places at top Business Schools in India is high. Are there any particular qualities Athena looks for among its applicants?   

The phrase we use constantly is ‘marks don’t make a business leader!’. While we do give weightage to academics and scores, we follow a profile-based admissions process.

We evaluate applicants equally on the basis of their extra-curricular achievements, including achievements in sport, social impact projects and volunteering activities, as well as their work experience and any prior international exposure. Most importantly, we evaluate their desire and hunger to succeed in making a positive and sustainable impact both in business and society.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing Business Schools in India and the surrounding region, in your opinion?

Indian Business Schools have to be extremely careful to avoid commoditisation of business education. A good business programme is not only about a qualification!

With a huge young and aspirational population below the age of 25, there is an insatiable demand for good education [in India]. However, it is critical that Business Schools keep their eye on the ball and realise that the final measure of our success is going to be borne out by the number of our graduates that excel in the corporate world and the world of business.

How many entrepreneurs are we truly able to create?! Business Schools have to create actual and tangible management and leadership skills among their students.

What do you think makes Athena’s Post-Graduate Programme in Management (PGPM) programme stand out from others that are available in India?

The Athena PGPM is designed to be an experiential-based pedagogy with a focus on real-world and practical learning. Our goal is to ‘positively impact the world through our students’.

The programme’s key features include: multiple internships with some of India’s top companies and startups; international immersion programmes across Europe, Asia and Canada; a faculty that includes top corporate leaders at CEO, Director and VP levels; a campus in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India; and small class sizes to ensure quality teaching and a keen focus on the students’ personality and soft skills.

Can you tell me how internships are incorporated into Athena’s PGPM programme and why the School places so much importance in them?

Internships are an integral and important part of the Athena PGPM. The programme includes a two-month long internship in each semester, which works out at a total of six to seven months of internships during the whole programme.

Interns are expected to implement their learnings from class, and to improvise and execute on a real-time basis. Each intern has a mentor attached from the company who guides them.

Alternatively, some students choose to pursue an international internship where they work with organisations in different geographies, along with understanding and appreciating different cultures and societies. Athena students have interned in different countries in Europe and Asia, including Italy, Turkey, Germany and Nepal.

Aside from internships, how else does the School facilitate experiential learning?

Experiential learning is a constant form of learning where the student is the ‘centre of gravity’ and the faculty are enablers and facilitators of learning rather disseminators of information. In order to facilitate, we include design thinking, action learning and project-based learning. 

Students pursue live projects with companies and NGOs, case study competitions, multiple internships along with consulting assignments. Students also have to work with projects in the social sector and with non-profits in order to truly understand business impact at all levels of society.

Do you think that PGPM/MBA curricula should be developed in collaboration with employers?

At Athena, we believe that potential employers have an extremely important role to play in the design and implementation of our programme. We follow the end-user process of curriculum design in order to keep our modules relevant and at the cutting edge of business practice and innovation.

Inputs and guidance are taken from senior stakeholders representing potential recruiters along with roundtables and conclaves that are held to discuss the changing and rapidly evolving business environment.

Can you tell me a little bit about Athena’s international immersion modules?

Global exposure and cross-border learning experiences go a long way towards creating future global leaders. While the international immersions are not mandatory, an increasing number of students are embracing the opportunity.

This year, we have students travelling to Singapore, Germany, Canada and the US for modules on topics ranging from leadership and entrepreneurship to analytics and Industrial Revolution 4.0. The experience of studying at these global institutions as well as interacting and living with students from across the world is a truly life-enhancing experience.

I note that community service and personal development initiatives are actively encouraged at the School. Can you tell me of any programme requirements here and/or what options are available to students during the programme?

While prior experience in community and/or social development is not mandatory, it is preferred. At the School itself, we actively partner with organisations such as Rotary International, AIESEC, Rotaract and other NGOs to make a positive impact on society.

Athena is also an academic partner of the United Nations Global Compact which reinforces our vision to contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It is mandatory for all Athena students to complete at least one live project towards community/social development.

What are your hopes for the School in the next five years – what do you want to see happen?

Our vision is to challenge the limits and change the parameters of what traditional management education has been in India. We see trending areas in business education that include entrepreneurship, analytics and design thinking, and we wish to establish a centre of excellence in each of these.

We also hope to increase the trend of international students studying with us in Mumbai. The hope is that, in the next five years, an Athena business graduate can create value for their organisations or create their own venture anywhere in the world equipped with experiential and innovative learning, international exposure, and a desire to excel and contribute to society.

Is there anything you’d like to see change among Business Schools both in India and in the rest of the world?

In a rapidly changing socioeconomic context, we have to become nimbler and more flexible in delivering solutions to our students which are relevant to the business environment.

We need to be able to predict change effectively and stay ahead of the curve rather than playing catch up. Business Schools also need to shift focus from extremely theory-centric learning to practical and real-world learning while encouraging students to become change agents in their future organisations. We have to harness new technologies so that they can complement and, in some cases, supplement current learning methodologies.

Aditya Singh is the Director of Athena School of Management in Mumbai, where he currently teaches leadership and differential thinking. He has more than 15 years of experience across the corporate sector, consulting, entrepreneurship and academia. Aditya is a graduate of the Wharton School’s Accelerated Development Program (ADP) and holds an MBA (PGP-FMB) from the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai.