We Must Begin the Work

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Tuesday, June 1, 2021
By Moez Limayem
Photo by iStock/PeopleImages
Advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace starts with business schools showing companies how—and why—to put DEI policies in place.

As people around the world reel from disturbing images of social injustice, many of us are experiencing personal epiphanies about our own unconscious biases. For the past year, business schools, as well as many of our corporate partners, have been forced to look inward. As we did so, many of us saw opportunities for improvement.

In this process of self-examination, even the most diverse institutions among us are discovering that we have not done enough to level the playing field for large segments of our society—for those who are unable to gain access to executive roles and leadership opportunities. Research has found that much of the time, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) elude us not because we openly discourage DEI in our workplaces, but because we hold biases and stereotypes that we do not even know we have.

We have come to a consensus: We all must do more to encourage diversity. We all must do more to discourage discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, and sexual preference.

Business school leaders must take the initiative to realize our biases and lay them bare, so that we can deal with the damage they do. Only then can we provide our corporate partners with the necessary knowledge and perspective to achieve greater diversity in the workplace.

From Theory to Practice

A 2019 study out of Villanova University points out that researchers coined the term “workforce diversity” in the 1990s to reflect data showing that workers were becoming more heterogeneous. And since then, the workforce has become more diverse, although we still have a long way to go.

Additional studies show that when companies place a priority on creating a diverse and inclusive workforce, aspects of the business such as profits, productivity, customer satisfaction, and employee recruitment and retention improve. Here are just a few study findings:

  • According to McKinsey, diverse teams produce financial returns 33 percent higher than the industry mean, primarily because companies with diverse teams better represent the consumers those companies are trying to reach.
  • Numbers from the International Monetary Fund show that gender diversity could grow the U.S. economy by 5 percent. When women have higher paying jobs, the IMF points out, they create multiplier effects for their communities. Studies also show that women tend to reinvest more than men do into the health, nutrition, and education of their children.
  • When there are more women on a team, collective intelligence rises, according to a 2010 study by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a Harvard Business Review article, two of the researchers note that “There’s little correlation between a group’s collective intelligence and the IQs of its individual members. But if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises.”
  • Diverse teams are radically more innovative, according to a study published in Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice, which analyzed levels of gender diversity in research and development teams from more than 4,000 businesses in Spain. (The study is also discussed in a November 2016 HBR article.)
  • A 2009 study in the American Journal of Sociology finds that diverse teams attract more diverse team members, because they draw in more candidates from personal networks. In other words, investing in diversity recruiting now will pay dividends in the future.

Ready for Change

As the case for diversity grows stronger, it becomes imperative that business colleges take the lead in examining and resolving inequities. We can begin by identifying biases in our students, faculty, and staff members, and training them in DEI matters. For example, the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business has started this process by creating a diversity task force and hiring an outside consultant to do baseline research. This work will require having many uncomfortable conversations and coming to stark realizations that we are not where we should be.

But once we address our own situations, we can begin showing our corporate partners how to introduce diversity into their organizations. I believe the world is ready for this sea change.

This readiness became clear to me recently when the Muma College of Business recently offered a seven-week certificate program titled Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace. With generous sponsorships from our business partners and the guidance of faculty from across the university, we were able to offer this program in virtual format, free of charge.

According to McKinsey, diverse teams produce financial returns 33 percent higher than the industry mean, primarily because companies with diverse teams better represent the consumers those companies are trying to reach.

Within weeks, more than 135,000 people had registered. They were from dozens of countries and tens of thousands of businesses and corporations; they included C-suite executives, senior and mid-level managers, human resource officers, and supporting workers.

Together, they recognized that there was something lacking in their organizations and that achieving both equality and a sense of inclusiveness is essential to the success of their businesses. They knew that establishing strong diversity and inclusion policies is the right thing for their organizations to do, both socially and commercially. At the same time, they were unsure how to go about implementing policies that nurture that cultural change. Their shared desire to do things differently represents yet another reason why we must waste no time in introducing DEI into our curricula.

A Starting Point

Creating a certificate program open to so many people took an immense amount of collaboration across wide swaths of business and educational landscapes. We drew on our existing partnerships with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team and Jabil, a Florida-based manufacturing services company, to make this program a reality.

Teams of business executives from both companies—including Jeff Vinik, owner of the Vinik Sports Group; Steve Griggs, CEO of the Lightning; and Mark Mondello, CEO of Jabil—worked with USF faculty and administrators to outline the program modules and recruit guest speakers.

The program consisted of seven two-hour online modules, with one module made available each week. The discussions focused on topics such as emotional intelligence, stereotypes and biases, and recruitment and retention strategies; the final discussion in the series delved into how to make DEI a sustainable part of the business model.

After completing each module, participants were required to pass quizzes at their leisure, from their own homes and offices. Graduates of the program received digital certificates from USF and a Credly badge they can display on their LinkedIn accounts.

Over the course of the program, participants learned that building a workforce that includes people of different races, religions, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and physical abilities doesn’t just improve broad societal issues. It also can help companies develop novel business practices, increase revenue, and improve performance.

As participants worked through each module, they were encouraged to examine their hiring practices, review their job descriptions, and look at their recruitment efforts to ensure a more diverse group of applicants. Participants were urged to demonstrate strong leadership support when designing DEI plans and setting targets, and they were advised to include their legal teams in the discussion to ensure their objectives met legal standards.

Building a workforce that includes people of different races, religions, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and physical abilities doesn’t just improve broad societal issues. It also can help companies develop novel business practices, increase revenue, and improve performance.

Finally, participants were advised to take a fresh look at their organizations’ facilities and workplaces to ensure they are accessible and to determine if there are ways they could be more inclusive. The bottom line: While we know it is important that we provide everyone with seats at the proverbial table, we must do more than that. We must make sure that employees at every level have voices at that table—that they feel included and are treated equitably.

Like our partners at Jabil and the Tampa Bay Lightning, we strongly believe that we all have room to grow, and companies must examine the business case for inclusion. Initiatives such as this certificate program can help business leaders understand not only how DEI is relevant to their organizations, but also how making it an integral part of their corporate cultures can help their businesses become more competitive and innovative.

Immediate Impact

The broader theme of the program, which concluded on May 5, focused on clearing the paths businesses must follow to make their workplaces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Of the 135,000 registered for the certificate, 62,231 have earned the certificate to date. A 2019 MIT study found that the average completion rate for such an online course is just 3.1 percent. We believe that the fact that our completion rate reached nearly 50 percent shows the intense interest the business world has in this topic. In fact, more than 1,100 participants commented that they would indeed take action as a result of taking the course.

We hope that the thousands of business leaders who enrolled in our program began to make immediate changes in their own corporate policies and that they have made DEI an everyday part of their workplaces. So far, the feedback has been encouraging. “Armed with the knowledge gained,” wrote a participant who works as a manager for a transportation services company, “I hope to continue to be a champion of change in this realm and help others see the value and goodness that comes with diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

While the central theme of our certificate was to highlight the biases and prejudices already existing in corporate America, the program is only the first step in achieving a fully diverse workplace. Nevertheless, the widespread interest in the program is evidence that business leaders and workers are ready to confront this issue; have difficult conversations that identify biases; and implement long-overdue, much-needed policies.

Because of the tremendous success of the program, we are now exploring options either to offer it again or to design a second session for those who earned their certificates. We know that, as business schools, we have an opportunity to support companies as they build and implement sustainable diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. By helping companies accomplish these goals, we can help make the business community stronger. In turn, we help make the world stronger as well.

Moez Limayem
Dean, Muma College of Business, University of South Florida
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