14 minute read

Equality and diversity

In episode three of the second season of the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast, BlueSky’s Stephanie Mullins and Kerry Ruffle are joined once again by International BizEd Guru, Matt Symonds, to discuss the importance of diversity in business education. Also in the episode, Stephanie sits down with Sunitha Narendran, Director of Roehampton Business School, as well as BlueSky Education colleague, Kyle Grizzell.


Steph: Equality and diversity has always been an important topic for business schools, and around the world, in every aspect. It's never going to stop being important. But it's definitely come to the forefront in the past few months, with the Black Lives Matter movement. More people are talking about it, there's more in the media about it, and business schools really should be taking note of this too.

Matt, I know you had some thoughts on that.

Matt: Yes, of course, a lot of efforts from business schools, perhaps in the last two decades, have focused on gender balance. If we look at the MBA classroom 10-15 years ago, we would typically see perhaps 25-28% women in those MBA classes. And, for the second year, Stanford GSB has brought in a class with 47% women and those levels, well above 40%, are true for many of the top US business schools. Europe is still playing catch up in this space, partly because of an international applicant pool that tends to be more male dominated, but, even moving beyond the MBA, it’s some of the pre-experience masters, the Masters in Management, where many schools are achieving gender parity in the classroom. And this matters, of course, because business schools are the pipeline for the future representation and balance across industries and sectors and C-suites. So, if financial services, technology, are to ever achieve any stronger gender balance, business schools are going to be a big part.

But there's still so much more to do beyond gender. As you look at LGBTQ+, as you look at underrepresented minorities at the student level, and the efforts that business schools have to make to ensure that they have those voices and that representation, and the confidence for those groups to really find their place in these very dynamic and thriving business school communities – that extends to the staff, and certainly extends to faculty. Harvard Business School is not alone in having a chronic underrepresentation of black faculty. And of course, with their case method it has been shown that very, very few of the protagonists of those C-suite leaders that feature in their case methods were black CEOs. And this, I think, is certainly an area where it's action, and not words. We've seen, as you mentioned Steph with Black Lives Matter, a lot of statements that schools have made, and it really is broad. We talk about equality, diversity, inclusion, and how business schools, I think, can really take a lead in this area, and how that will subsequently be reflected in business and in society.

Kerry: So in this edition, we'll look to speak to some key people at business schools and our own team about how to work with the topics of equality and diversity responsibly in the media, and how to share what business schools are doing with a wider audience. Steph, who are we going to be hearing from in this edition?

Steph: So, we have our very own Kyle Grizzell later on in the episode, but we'll kick off with Sunitha Narendran. She’s the Director of Roehampton Business School and has some really interesting insights on this topic.

Now from previous conversations, Sunitha, we've been talking about how 70% of students at Roehampton Business School actually come from an ethnic minority background? So this is a topic that's close to your heart, isn't it?

Sunitha: Yes, it is very close to my heart, not just because I'm the director of the business school, where we have a large proportion, as you mentioned, 70% of our students are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds – I don't like the word BAME, so I’m going to say they’re from ethnic minority backgrounds – of which 30% of our students come from South Asian backgrounds, and about 25% of our students are black. And then of course, the rest are from Asian backgrounds and others.

One of the things, that is very important to me, is that we need to give opportunities to everyone. We need to address the equality gap that exists today. I don't want to call it an attainment gap. It's not really an attainment gap. It is more to do with what support we can put in place. So I would like to look at equality and diversity more from an inclusivity perspective. How inclusive our curriculum is, how inclusive our society is. And then Roehampton, we talk about the community. The business school is a community of learning and one of the missions of the business school would be a business school ‘with a social conscience’. So inclusivity, equality, these are all very important from the perspective of being a business school with a social conscience. And a lot of the research that we do in the business school is also related to inclusivity to ethics, corporate social responsibility, social responsibility, and public good.

Steph: Fantastic. That's such a nice phrase, ‘business school with a social conscience’. That sums it up perfectly. And I know you've said to me before that you care about every single student and you want them all to do well, regardless of their background and where they've come from. Every student deserves that chance to succeed.

Sunitha: That's right. I think, and you’re right Stephanie, that every student, when they join a university, they're making a big step in their lives. And they're also allowing us to feature forever on their CV. I always tell my students that when they come in for induction, I say ‘you've made a big decision, because from now on Roehampton University will feature on your CV: every job interview you go to, Roehampton University will feature’. So I think we have a deeply important role and we will always be there with them. And I think that education is something that you never stop. You never stop learning, do you? So I think once they come to Roehampton University and Roehampton Business School, I'd like for them to be always engaged with us and come back to us as alumni, and continue their education with us as long as they need to. And as long as they want to.

Steph: Wonderful, and I think you're preparing to get students on campus. That's right, isn't it?

Sunitha: Yes, we are. Oh, and we’re very excited about it as well. And a bit nervous because the operation status keeps changing. The day before yesterday, we were – we follow the government guidelines – and at the moment, universities are at operational status three, which means we’re preparing to have a COVID secure campus where students can come back to learning in classrooms if they want to. And I use the word ‘if’ they want to, because, I'll just elaborate on that: its social distance rules in place; one way systems; classrooms that have got fewer students; two metre distance; and Perspex screens from which the staff will be speaking and teaching. But now we've changed the subject, this morning, it looks like we might have to be a bit more careful when our students are working with us on campus.

Steph: I think there is an element of flexibility now, depending on the state of play, in terms of the pandemic and what the government guidelines are. But you're looking into all these preparations that are going to make the students’ lives safe and easy as possible.

Sunitha: Yes. And in the university we've created what are called ‘residential bubbles’ for students who are living in a particular residence. So sometimes they share a space with four other students, they then would be a residential bubble. But for the business school, we are different from the rest of Roehampton in one way because 76% of our students live off campus. So, although we have accommodation in Roehampton, and in the other faculties and schools and departments they live on campus, our students, 76% of them, are going to be commuting into campus. So we need to take a different approach to make sure they're safe. And then also, if you look at them, most of our students – 40% of our students are between the ages of 21 to 24, which means they are also juggling work. We have almost no students who are under the age of 21. So, the typical 18-year-old going to university, that's not the profile of the students in Roehampton Business School. Roehampton Business School students, I think the youngest would be about 21. So they are slightly older, and they also work. So how we address their needs in order to be safe in the face of pandemic is quite different.

Steph: Absolutely, and you mentioned that students could come back if they wanted to. Could you tell us more about that?

Sunitha: Yes. At the business school, we thought about how we make things work for them, and for our staff. There were two things we did: we did a demographic risk profile of all of our staff members. So no one is supposed to come back to teach. And I have spoken to every single one of them who has a risk profile that I need to be careful about. So, how do we manage the teaching then? We have a combination of online and face-to-face teaching – I’d just like to say that some of my staff are desperate to come back to the class. It’s not that all staff are not wanting to come back, there are some who can't come back, for obvious reasons. But some are very desperate to come back and I've had to tell some of them, ‘no, you can't because I don't think it's safe for you to come back. We'll have to see whether you’re well enough. We take into account all those demographic factors that you have, you might have an underlying problem. So we need to kind of see how we can help you.’ But by and large, all the staff who can come back or who want to come back, can come back.

Now, we thought ‘if you're going to do this for your staff, you have to do this for students.’ So we obviously can't do a demographic profiling of our students for obvious reasons. But what we can do is we can ask them. So we took the unprecedented step of writing to every single student and asking them whether they would like to come back and have face-to-face sessions, or whether they would like us to mirror whatever we are teaching through synchronous online learning. We have, at the moment we’re not a very big business school, but we have about 1300 students in the business school on campus. And we have a number of students in our collaborative partnerships. And they’re following the same guidance there. So we wrote to our students, and we asked them whether they would like to come back to campus and have an on-campus experience. Before we wrote to them, we invited them to a webinar, and then we invited them to an online meeting after that. But in the webinar, my Deputy Director of Education and the Head of Learning and Teaching made a presentation about what we've done for students so that they can feel reassured that they're going to be safe. We talked about the one way systems, we talked about the social distance spaces in the classrooms, and hand-sanitizers and all of the arrangements, the deep cleaning and so on. And then after that, we wrote to them, as I said, and asked them whether they would like to come into campus or whether they would like to complete online experience, which will be asynchronous lectures and synchronous teaching. And we had 40% of our students come back to us to say that they don't, they would prefer to be learning online.

So what we will do is we will allow them, but we also have given them the choice of coming back anytime. So it’s not as if they have ticked a box that says they only want to learn online and then they change their mind, we’ve also given them the option to come back. But they just need to email us so that we can make arrangements for them. That's what we've done. And I think that is very important. Because when you have a student demographic of between 21 and 24, some of them are even older, I think they should be given the choice. And they should be given the opportunity to tell us how they want to learn. And we need to respond to that.

Steph: Definitely, I love how, as a business school, you've treated every single person as an individual, and allowed that sense of personality, that openness, and that flexibility as well to change their minds. That's really wonderful.

Sunitha: Thank you. We don't have status hierarchies in the business school. We learn from them as much as they learn from us, because they bring so many experiences from work that they can share with us all. We work as a community, as I said, and where we learn from each other. So, students sit on all our committees. Our students have a voice and we make decisions, not for them, but we make decisions along with them. So they contribute to how they want to learn and, they don't necessarily contribute to what they have to learn, because we sort of ask their permission to tell them what they need to know, but there may be few other things. But we also asked them ‘this is the topic, what would you like to learn?’ So it's a very interactive learning experience that is very community-focused and shared understanding of things.

Steph: Definitely, and very responsive to the needs and the desires of the actual people that are learning, which is wonderful. And thank you so much for sharing all of that with us.

Sunitha: You're very welcome, Stephanie. And thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to share how we work at Roehampton Business School. Thank you.

Steph: It’s a pleasure. Thanks very much.

Kerry: What strikes me about your conversation with Sunitha is how every voice at Roehampton has been heard. It's a great example of equality. And in fact, equality and diversity should be considered at this level with business schools. And we see this a lot in our communications efforts. Business schools must be seen to be fair and just. Steph spoke with Kyle Grizzell, a PR consultant here at BlueSky, about why it's so important, and the work he's been doing with schools in this area. Here's what he had to tell us.

Steph: Kyle, don't you think this is such an important issue right now?

Kyle: Yes, it definitely is. And I think diversity is a diverse area. You've got different areas of diversity – you have sexuality, nationality, race, gender, it’s all these important areas that business schools should be looking at.

Steph: I totally agree. I don't think we can overlook the different aspects of diversity. I think a lot of institutions are very good at recognising these different important bits to it. So you help institutions secure coverage and media visibility on these important topics, would you talk us through a little bit about that?

Kyle: Yes, definitely. Because diversity is such an important area, it is important for schools to let the media know that they too are focusing on this, and that their students and their graduates are thinking that this is an important area to work in. One example is with BI Norwegian Business School. They had a graduate who, his entire life, saw diversity being misunderstood and underappreciated. So he went on to study at BI Norwegian Business School, he got his degree, and he started two businesses that focus on improving diversity, helping businesses with diverse workforces and diverse founders begin these businesses and become successful. The other of his businesses also helps diverse people form networks and come together to prove that these different people have all these different ideas, diverse ways of thinking, because that's what diversity is. It's about these different types of people, in a million different ways that you can think of, just figuring out different ways of doing things.

Steph: Awesome. Sounds amazing. What great visibility for BI to have someone like that as one of their alumni. And it really showcases the school as helping people like that to succeed.

Kyle: Yes, it does.

Steph: It's not just student and alumni stories though, is it, that you help business schools talk about in terms of barriers to equality and diversity? Is it?

Kyle: No, so a lot of schools have faculty who know that diversity is important, and so research different areas where it can be seen to be a real asset. With one professor from the London School of Economics’ Department of Management, Dr Karen King, we helped in writing a piece for a publication called DiversityQ which, obviously from the name, focuses on diversity in the workplace. Her piece talked about her view, and this is especially relevant now with the pandemic, that it will be companies that have this incredibly diverse workforce that survive the pandemic better than those that don't have this diversity. Because, as I said before, a diversity of people is a diversity of thinking. So you have all these different people that might be able to come up with a way of getting through a crisis, or solving a problem, that you wouldn't have if you had a workforce of people that were all completely the same. If they're all from the same walks of life, the same gender, the same nationality, they might all think in the same way.

Steph: Definitely, that's such a good example of a piece of research that really has an impact and makes a difference, and people should be reading in order to learn those lessons and implement them in the real world. I mean, so often we hear that business schools and universities, their research just goes into journals and then they're read by barely any people because they're often closed, they're not open-access, and people don't think to go and look for them to access them. So they need people like us to help them get this news out there. And I'm loving that you gave a student example and a faculty example. But institutions themselves do a lot too in this area, don't they?

Kyle: Yes, so you've got the students, who know that diversity is important, and the professors, but you also want to see that the institution itself is doing things to show the people out there that this is something it cares about. And an example of this is Imperial College Business School, who joined ROMBA, which is ‘Reaching Out MBA’. This is an organisation that helps schools host events on-campus to build awareness of LGBTQ issues in the workplace. One of the ways they also help is that, members of this organisation can have the capacity to offer a scholarship to an MBA student who has demonstrated leadership in championing LGBT representation within business education. So, as well as showing that they're part of this group, and that they, by being part of this group, care about the issues, they also help somebody out there who has been doing practical work in this area of improving the diversity of LGBTQ representation in business education, get a scholarship, and that they can carry on doing that work, which shows they are they are pulling people up to the top, wherever they can.

Steph: Love that. Helping people succeed at the end of the day. And that's what we want see, thank you so much for sharing those examples, because I don't think it can be underestimated how much we still need to talk about diversity and equality, and really make movements and progress in this area across all fields. So thank you so much.

Kyle: Thank you for having me.

Steph: So those were some wonderful examples from Kyle. And I think it's really important to talk about examples like these, because what I've definitely seen across the industry is that many schools are almost afraid to talk about topics in areas of gender, and in areas of diversity and equality, because they feel like if they focus on one aspect of diversity, they'll be criticised for not focusing on other areas. But I really think that it's a step by step process. And we need to talk about the changes that schools are making, so that we can inspire others, and other schools will look at these examples and implement them in their own institutions. It's not a ‘click your fingers and the world will be fixed’, it really is making these differences as much as schools can and as much as we can.

Matt: I think you make a great point. And often it comes up around the area of a sense of imposter syndrome. And students who are already fitting into classrooms, who are surrounded by lots of other very bright, talented, ambitious classmates and thinking ‘where is a place for me?’ I think if schools put their heads in the sand and say, ‘Well, you know, the danger is that this is a fraught area. If we're talking about one subject, will we then be exposed and shown to be not engaging in other areas?’ It does set the bar very high for business schools. But I think it's a bar that they're able to reach. And, subsequent messaging, the idea of role models, the idea of mentors, but certainly the idea of this very inclusive and diverse classroom environment, so that an individual doesn't feel that they are the odd one out. I love the fact that the Dean at INSEAD, Ilian Mihov, says, ‘at this school, we want everybody to be a minority.’ When it's phrased in that way, that it's very positive, there are no dominant voices. And I think there is the opportunity for business schools to really take the lead, and provide that sort of inclusive environment for individuals across the spectrum.

Kerry: Yeah, I think going back to what Steph says, it's not about having all the answers immediately. This is something that is going to progress and roll and continue throughout the years. But instead, it's about a business school showing that they're willing to have the right discussions. That they are recognising what the challenges are, what the demand is from society and what they are hoping to then reflect in their own schools. Whether it's through programmes, through their faculty, through the students, they're welcome through the doors. This isn't something that's going to get fixed overnight. But I think business schools need to be willing to have a bit of humility, and say that they are aware of issues that are happening, they're ready to tackle them. They might not be able to do everything immediately, but they're at least taking steps in the right direction. And I think a business school that can stand up and say that, and be honest, I think will have a lot more weight, not just with media, but also with applicants who can take them at face value and be reassured that the institution they're looking to apply to has the right priorities at heart.

Matt: Of course, with the multiple levels of media engagement that business schools have the opportunity to pursue, even their own on-campus, internal events, need to ensure that they have diversity on the roundtables and speakers that they include. But working with the media and ensuring that students and alumni stories that they always look to capture. Because this is what people pick up on. So is somebody like me, or I can identify myself with that voice? So it does require the communications team to be very alert, and proactively pursue and ensure that the voices and the opportunities that they look for really reach and capture all of the voices in their diverse campus and community.

Steph: Spot on Matt. And I think this episode of our podcast should stand to encourage schools not only to implement these diverse initiatives, but start talking about them. And I think that is a wonderful end to our podcast on equality and diversity.

Join our other episodes later on in the season when we're talking about the future of business education.


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