You are here

  1. Home
  2. How can business schools help create more racially diverse businesses?

How can business schools help create more racially diverse businesses?

Dr Terry O'Sullivan is​ a Senior Lecturer in Management at The Open University Business School. This text is based on the 'How can business schools help to build more racially diverse businesses?' webinar, held on Wednesday 02 December 2020.

My colleague Claire Maguire and I were inspired to do this webinar after listening to ‘How to build a racially diverse business’, an episode of Radio 4’s The Bottom Line (co-produced with the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University). It explored the issue of diversity in the workplace, in particular the slow progress being made in this regard. You can catch the podcast on BBC Sounds. We also wanted to keep up the momentum created by the Faculty of Business and Law’s contributions to Black History Month in October. Check out OpenLearn’s Race and Ethnicity Hub for details.

The Open University Business School lists inclusivity among its values, aiming to ‘promote social justice through the development of knowledge and skills’. We were keen to explore precisely what business schools like us can do to help rectify a situation in which, for example, only 40% of FTSE 250 companies have a non-White director on their boards (EY Parker Review update, 2020, p.10). From our initial discussions three areas emerged:

1) What are we teaching our students already that might be helping to increase diversity in senior management? What ought we be doing differently?

2) How do we as a business school see the way forward – especially in the current ferment of debate about institutional racism, and whether universities are part of the solution or part of the problem?

3) What kind of graduates are employers seeking as leaders in more diverse organisations?

We were fortunate to be able to attract three terrific guests to discuss these issues from the perspectives of graduate, business school, and employer.

First on was Rachel Blackburn, an award-winning OU MBA alumna whose consultancy US2U helps clients with a range of issues, including diversity and race. Rachel was reassuring about the practical relevance of many of the concepts she had met in her studies – particularly some classic ideas about culture and change management. An example is Kurt Lewin’s Force Field analysis tool. Despite dating from the mid-20th century, this gives Rachel a powerful framework for surfacing obstacles in the way of her clients realising the benefits of diversity, as well as factors encouraging positive change. Rachel also acknowledged the sensitivity of work in this area. Part of the difficulty of conversations about racism at work is that staff may have to relive traumatic experiences.

The point about experience was echoed by Professor Devendra Kodwani, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Business and Law, and Head of the Business School at the time of recording. He shared how his personal perspective on racism had changed as a result of taking on a senior leadership role in the University. As a doctoral student in the UK, he had endured the occasional racist incident, but had been less aware of the impact of systemic prejudice. Stepping up to a senior position had alerted him to how even in an organisation as historically committed to widening opportunity as The Open University there is still a long way to go when it comes to racial equality. Professor Kodwani pointed to recent initiatives such as the appointment of Professor Marcia Wilson as cross-faculty Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, as well as the creative and critical work by colleagues throughout the Faculty of Business and Law, to rethink our teaching and research to be more inclusive. As you might expect from a business school leader, Professor Kodwani's justifications for prioritising diversity in our model of management development included greater creativity and sound business sense, quite apart from the moral case.

Our final speaker, Dr Habib Naqvi, shared insights from leading on race equality for the UK’s largest employer – the National Health Service (NHS). With a workforce of 1.4 million, and an entire population of service users, the NHS has got to know a thing or two about inclusivity. Dr Naqvi stressed the importance of data in driving racial equality – deciding on the key indicators and tracking them rigorously. He also underlined the accountability of ‘middle managers’ for implementing successful change. The NHS has 400,000 of them. Many are business school graduates, underlining our responsibility to support them effectively by what we teach and research.

Taking our lead from what the NHS is doing, business schools should make issues like diversity, inclusion, racism and White privilege more visible in teaching and research, as well as walking the talk as inclusive employers ourselves. Like all our speakers, Dr Naqvi can cite financial as well as moral imperatives for race equality. Research commissioned from the King’s Fund suggests that inclusivity in the workplace can lead to an average of £1.4 million annual savings in NHS hospital trusts.

Igor Ansoff, an early management educator, said the purpose of a business school was to produce ‘change agents’.  The take-away from our webinar is that the change agents we need to produce to help create more racially diverse business should be:

  • confident and creative with theory
  • courageous in challenging ‘business as usual’, and
  • capable of gathering and using evidence to improve outcomes for all sectors of society.
I want to conclude this post by emphasising that this webinar is part of an ongoing conversation. What leadership can we show, in business schools or any other organisation, to promote greater diversity?
Please do join in on social media using #OUBSdiverse.
Dr Terry O'Sullivan

You can watch the 'How can business schools help to build more racially diverse businesses?' webinar recording here.