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‘Top-down acceptance’: schools can help bring together business and society © Getty Images

In a time of culture wars, the topics of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) are on the frontline. “Go woke, go broke” has become a rallying cry for critics on social and news media, who claim that businesses’ financial success is at risk from such policies.

But despite the furore surrounding the subject, many others argue that DEIB — with the “B” for “belonging” increasingly added to incorporate the importance of acceptance and feeling heard — is now a key facet of a successful business.

“Greater diversity on all fronts brings with it fresh thinking, different perspectives and ultimately better outcomes for businesses and their clients,” says Jenny Baskerville, head of inclusion, diversity and equity at KPMG UK.

But implementing this sort of structural thinking requires a comprehensive approach in which diversity and inclusion are not treated superficially or relegated to the responsibility of a single department.

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“Everyone has a role to play in making inclusive workplaces a reality,” says Baskerville — a lesson that will apply to business school students whether they are looking to join a company or build one of their own.

Fadia Nordtveit, an assistant professor at Springfield College in Massachusetts who also works with New York University, says that awareness of diversity and inclusion has grown in recent years. Greater recognition of its importance has been catalysed by the coronavirus pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and growing political polarisation in the US and globally.

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Fadia Nordtveit says business schools are well-positioned to make a difference on diversity © Handout

“The urgency with which [DEIB is] spoken about in more mainstream, public platforms is definitely a change from when I started researching it,” says Nordtveit, who also founded consulting company Collaborative.ly to support companies with implementation.

That pressure to improve also reflects ongoing inequalities in particular sectors. A report by KPMG this year found that in the UK, staff of black heritage were under-represented at all levels of financial services organisations, especially in top jobs.

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But the reaction from many businesses has been to hire personnel to focus on these issues without broader support, leaving them as “islands”, upon whom all responsibility for diversity and inclusion sits.

The KPMG report was equally insistent that major structural change cannot simply rely on small numbers of individuals without top-down acceptance. “A community that has been historically and systemically disadvantaged requires sustained and dedicated support,” it concluded. “D&I teams need a mandate from the top, sufficient budget and the authority to set [key performance indicators].”

Nordtveit says that business schools have a particular opportunity to foster a cultural shift that brings together business and society, encouraging students to see and experience the value of diversity of thought and experience.

“If we surround ourselves with only those who think, speak and eat just like us, there will be no real room for growth and innovation,” she cautions. “Ultimately, students need to learn how to help companies overcome the fear and chaos around difference and aid in creating structures to help them invest in and build on their differences.”

Nordtveit’s work at Collaborative.ly focuses on creating a tool for companies to collect data, evaluate their performance and then plan the next steps to take on DEIB — an evolution from past strategic management templates that have failed to embed these considerations.

“Business schools need to lead the way in helping students learn about the importance of DEIB structures in building more inclusive, sustainable and accountable businesses,” she says. “[They] also need to rethink and recreate curricula to represent and recreate more inclusive content, methodology and opportunities.”

These approaches are particularly important in industries such as technology, where the systems that are being created and deployed can have significant effects around the world, Nordtveit says.

“Be it social media or AI, tech algorithms can make or break the ways in which we use technology to create a more just, diverse, equitable and inclusive universe where we create positive belonging,” Nordtveit says. “Or we can use technology in the hands of the few to create deeper divisions and spread misinformation, to name a few misuses.”

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Anne-Marie Balfe, EY’s financial services team leader for Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa, also outlines steps that the next generation of business leaders could take in order to fully implement DEIB in their future roles.

“Proactive actions to take include regularly self-reflecting on personal bias, encouraging everyone to provide an opinion in team meetings, and monitoring the consistency of experiences and performance evaluation,” she says.

Encouraging staff to engage in “storytelling” — sharing their experiences — is also an important part of creating an inclusive culture, she says. It can provide a space for authentic conversations about issues related to diversity and inclusion and offering insight into colleagues’ experiences, as well as helping to identify potential inequalities in a company that might otherwise be missed.

“Listening to others enriches our own views and expands our understanding, in turn, leading to action — personally through interactions, and structurally through the processes that we may influence,” she says.

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