Championing workplace diversity starts at business school

Business schools are uniquely placed to bring together people from different backgrounds, argues Heather McGregor.

by Heather McGregor
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2017

Let’s start with the word ‘diversity’. What does it mean today? Back in 2010, when Dame Helena Morrissey set up the 30% Club to get more women onto public company boards, it largely meant diversity of gender. Recently, ethnic minorities have moved more front and centre of the diversity debate.

 Diversity in the workplace can also be about able-bodiedness, socioeconomic background, religion or sexual preference. In the future, diversity in the workplace will be diversity of education, of age and stage of life.

Business schools, I would argue, are already so successful in their pursuit of diversity that it almost goes unnoticed - diversity, that is, of nationality. Most business students sit alongside a wider range of peers by nationality than any other student body. Why do we not point this out more often?   Any why have we been so successful? How can business schools take this success and apply it to other forms of diversity?

In a truly global talent market, employers want the widest possible range of skills and thought, and they want to bring that together in functioning teams. Are there any other institutions better equipped to do this than business schools?

Business school is a great leveler. I was a student at London Business School in the early 1990s, in a class of 64 studying for an ‘executive’ MBA. This meant I was juggling an MBA with a full-time job (and for good measure, a relatively new husband and a brand new baby). I remember being very smug about my GMAT score, only to realise that the other 63 people in the class were cleverer than me and had more interesting business experience.

In spite of being taught by such inspirational scholars and teachers as Charles Handy, Andrew Likierman, and Rob Goffee, many of the lifelong skills I took from business school were thanks to the engineer from Jaguar who shared insights into producing a world-class luxury good at scale. My assigned work group included a senior manager in a homeless charity, a salesperson at an investment bank, and an operations director at a utilities company. How much more diverse can you get?

What helps the development of our students is, of course, the diversity of our faculty. Business school faculty are more diverse than mainstream university colleagues, by age, nationality, experience (practitioners like me are more and more common) and of course first degree disciplines. There are so many sociologists and historians working in business schools that I am surprised there are any left to fill sociology and history departments. 

It is this ability of business schools to draw people in from all backgrounds and send them out with the common language of business, commitment to teamwork, and an understanding of management and leadership, that makes them the most effective promulgators of diversity in the workplace.

Ten years ago I started a foundation to train black and minority ethnic graduates to help them access careers in corporate communications. The 10-week intervention sought to level the playing field between the average white middle class workplace entrant and those from minority backgrounds.

The programme drew its entire cohort for several years from the University of East London, after the then vice-chancellor stood me outside the door of his business school, pointed to Canary Wharf, and challenged me to get more of his graduates into jobs there.

In designing the programme I sought to do the things that business schools do: give participants relevant skills for today’s workplace, including a common business language, and to build them a network, not just with each other, but with the wider world.

That is what we, as business schools, do so well. We give people from all walks of life the ability to operate effectively in the workplace and deliver contacts and links that will last a lifetime.  We put a brand and a qualification on to people’s CVs that is easily understood by employers, even when they can’t work out if the applicant is a male or a female because their name is so unfamiliar. As a community we must ensure that we draw on the most provocative thinking in root disciplines to ask what does it mean to organise effectively.

How will business schools do this in the future? I suggest there are four key approaches.

First, to attract people from across the age and life-stage spectrum we will need to have good access routes, and make sure that they are well publicised.  While most business schools offer entry to well-qualified candidates without a first degree, the perception is still strong that a postgraduate degree in management is just that – post a degree.

Next, we will need to deliver distributed learning. This means having multiple touch points for the student: online, on campus, with third party tutors, with alumni, whatever it takes. The customer who can design their own learning experience from a set of building blocks, in the time and at the pace they wish, will be drawn from the most diverse student group of all.

Another key to a level playing field will be experiential learning. Other professions put a lot of emphasis on observing theory put into practice (think nurses, doctors, teachers) and business schools need to do this too. We can’t be a profession if we don’t take practice seriously. 

Finally, social capital. While we all design our programmes to deliver very specific human capital outcomes, teaching people how to build a network, and then providing them with the opportunity to do so, and measuring how effective that is, is rare if not entirely absent from the business school today.

Business schools have a role to play as brokers across the many divides that separate people today. We are already creating - and will continue to do so better than anywhere else - the diverse workforce of the future.

Heather McGregor is executive dean of Edinburgh Business School, the graduate school of management of Heriot-Watt University. She is also a former MT columnist.

This article is an extract from Rethinking Business Education (ed. Della Bradshaw).


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