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

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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?

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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

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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

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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. 

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, 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.

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