The Conversation: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Business

by Diana Drake

The global pandemic added great uncertainty to our lives in the early 2020s, and yet many high school students raised a collective voice of assurance about one important issue: racism in America.

The May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparked protests that spilled into the streets of urban and suburban centers across the U.S., often led by teens rallying around the Black Lives Matter movement. “It really takes action in order for real change to come,” said Foyun D., 16, in a New York Times article about a group of high school students in Katy, Texas, who banded together to organize and lead an activism march in their town.

The fight for justice and equality is also strong in the business world. In fact, Black Lives Matter increased the focus on racial inequalities in the workplace. At the Wharton School, which often leads the conversation on global business issues, students, professors and administrators have long researched and innovated around diversity, equity and inclusion – or DEI — in business. DEI is a movement of its own.

Nia Robinson, a former undergraduate student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the Wharton Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Group, a student initiative fostering diversity and inclusion at Wharton, provides a snapshot of DEI: “At the most basic level, diversity is who is in the room [what differences are represented around the table?]; inclusivity is who has influence in the room [do all voices have the opportunity to contribute?]; and equity is do we have fair practices for those in the room [for example, are men and women paid an equal wage?].”

“The truth is, when something isn’t your reality, you don’t see it.” — Gwen Houston, Diversity Expert

While companies are seeing the value of DEI and different perspectives by recruiting more minorities and doing employee training to help people understand the deep biases they have, progress has been slow. For example, among the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (big companies in the U.S.), less than 1% are Black, and they are all male.

Stephanie Creary, an identity and diversity scholar in Wharton’s management department, spoke with diversity expert Gwen Houston, a former Chief Diversity Officer for several large corporations, including Microsoft and Campbell Soup.

In the interview, part of the Knowledge@Wharton podcast series Leading Diversity at Work, Houston said, “Our workplaces are a microcosm of broader society. What’s happening in the world finds its way into the work environment.” Creary added: “We actually bring those same selves to work…you see people acting and engaging in racist, sexist, homophobic ways outside of the workplace, and it’s very hard for us to imagine that they wouldn’t be doing those same things inside of the workplace. And when that happens, that’s why we have inequity and lack of opportunity.”

Making Diversity a Priority

The Wharton School made its own headlines in the area of DEI at the end of February 2020, when the University of Pennsylvania appointed Erika H. James as the new dean of the Wharton School. James, who took over her role July 1 of that year, is the first woman and African-American to lead Wharton in its 139-year history. Soon after, she appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered radio program. “I think that if we can create social media platforms, if we can put people on the moon and if we can have self-driving cars, there’s very little that we can’t do,” said James, who is known for her workplace-diversity research. “So, the fact that we have not yet created a more diverse work environment means that we simply haven’t prioritized it.”

Wharton is continuing to prioritize the conversations happening in society and business, from impact investing that has a positive impact on women, to fair finance that promotes widespread economic prosperity. Knowledge@Wharton, the online business journal of the Wharton School, has a robust collection of DEI-related articles and podcasts. Wharton undergraduate students have gathered for town hall meetings about racism in America. Students also worked with the dean’s office and other administrators to create a new Seeds of Business course for incoming freshmen from historically underrepresented backgrounds who may not have had the same exposure as other high school students to business ideas and concepts.

Wharton student Robinson says that the conversation around these important issues is really only the beginning. “At this stage in the game, people know about the inequities and the lack of diversity and inclusion,” she said. “After we have conversations, we need to think about where we have the empathy for change. Where are the barriers and how can we eliminate those barriers?”

Houston also underscores the importance of empathy, or learning to understand people’s experiences on a deeper level. “The truth is, when something isn’t your reality, you don’t see it,” said Houston. That’s why education and empathy are so important, especially at the top of the organizational chart. Once the unconscious bias is exposed, acknowledged and understood, change can begin.

Conversation Starters

How are protests like those sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor and others related to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace?

What is unconscious bias and why is it so important to this conversation? Hint: Check out our Global Youth article Learning to Be Color Brave.

Have you worked in an internship or at a business where you have had either positive or negative experiences with diversity, equity and inclusion? Share your story in the Comment section of this article.

2 comments on “The Conversation: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Business

  1. Stepping into seventeen today means that I’m only one year away from being an adult, one year away from shouldering all of the social responsibility. This brings me to think deeper and seriously about the matters of society, especially when aspirating to become a business leader that influences the society.

    Recalling back to 2020, the death of George Floyd not only blew up the BLM movement in the western world but also raised the awareness of racial inequality in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a place where I grew up, and a place with relatively much lesser racial diversity compared with the States. Even with the environmental difference, I am glad that people still pay attention and speak for them. This shows how the world is improving. As the main trend, the sense of social diversity is awakening, leading to equality and diversity in the business environment.
    However, because of the environment in Hong Kong, I relate more to gender and age diversity and inequality in the business environment. I believe that the trend of fighting for racial inequalities by BLM in the business world is just the start of improving inclusion in business. The actual equity for gender and age in the workplace is coming soon.

    Personally, I have a positive experience of feeling inclusion in the workplace. Except for gender inequality, age and education level discriminations were also typical workplace environment issues. For my summer internship in a Marketing company, initially, they didn’t accept high school students. But after taking the initiative to prove my ability, I successfully received my offer. And luckily, that company has an inclusive and diversified environment which is the ideal place for employees. Although I don’t have the same education level as others, they accept me because of my ability. I’m a few years younger than my colleagues, but they respect and treat me with no difference, and there is a fairly equal ratio of male to female employees with no discriminations. Because of the fair treatment I received, the diversity and inclusion of the workplace, it allows me to be comfortable and put all my potentials into work.

    My original ideal business environment would be only gathering the top workers by work and academic experiences, as most of the companies do. But after the summer and reading this article, it led me thinking, “Is work and academic experiences actually the right way to judge ability?”, “When I choose teammates and workers in the future, how do I prevent unconscious biases about race, genders, age and more?”, “What is an ideal workplace environment?”

    I came to the conclusion: A perfect business environment should be diversified, having collisions for different sparks and blooming creative ideas. As Nia in the article said, “At the most basic level, diversity is who is in the room [what differences are represented around the table?]; inclusivity is who has influence in the room [do all voices have the opportunity to contribute?]; and equity is do we have fair practices for those in the room [for example, are men and women paid an equal wage?].” I believe a fair environment is what a business leader should aim to shape, and this is where the trend is going.

    Referring to the article, I agree that “education and empathy are so important, especially at the top of the organizational chart”. But if I were the one who chose the combinations for organization managers, I won’t simply use education as the margin, since education level can’t represent their ability. Instead, I will encourage workers and managers to have further education with some sponsors. I know that some companies have already been doing this, but except for only learning hardware skills, widening their eyesight and enriching their empathy for the sense of inclusion should be the focus of education.

    Although the number of workers from diversified backgrounds has been increasing after the BLM movement. Sadly, the reality is that some firms only present inclusion and diversification in statistics, numbers, and documents. They arrange less work for them as they believe a specific race could do the work better, and view them with stereotypes. These unfair treatments weren’t necessarily done by incident, but unconscious biases. Accepting different backgrounds and races should not be done only to reach the number or making the firm seem equal, but actually including and treating them by heart as they deserved.

    The workplace is more inclusive as diversification arises. As technology improves, it becomes easier for us to understand and accept different cultures, just as HK did with BLM. Therefore, I believe we, the Generation Zs, could bring actual change in the business world: Accepting diversification and limiting unconscious biases.

  2. I think that the DEI model is a wonderful structure that is already being implemented! This is especially true in activist organizations. In my own school club known as the Panther Anti-Racist Union (PARU), we make it our goal to enforce these 3 concepts within the DEI model in our school.

    First, we value and promote diversity within our school. We encourage students to speak out at board meetings where their voices are often not heard. Furthermore, PARU members have helped arrange diversity celebrations. As next year’s co-president, I am in charge of PARU’s Instagram where I put together posts to celebrate times such as Black History Month or Asian Heritage Month. PARU has helped overturn book bans and recently put 2 books back on the library shelves. The most recent book ban used the wrong policy to ban library books, so PARU helped formulate a new policy to challenge library-based books. PARU has held book drives and given back to the community to encourage reading among young students. The books that are passed out in these drives are usually written by authors of color or are of the LGBT+ community.

    This school year, a second book ban appeared and swept our club up with a lot of anger. This was because we had just overturned a book ban the year before, but another 2 books were being banned. While the number of books being banned had decreased significantly, the same amount of ignorance was still there.

    The ban removed a book called ‘Push’, silencing the voice of an African American girl who faced struggles including sexual assault. We need to include this voice because if we don’t, those who face the same problems as Push’s main character will not have their issues addressed. Sexual assault and rape are serious issues, but as some of the speakers at the board meeting had said, it was “pornography.” I think it is not at all that. The story was more about the struggles of sexual assault and rape. The nuance in the words is subtle but important to consider when banning books. The same amount of ignorance is still at play these days since the book provides information most specifically about African American struggles.

    For these school board members to dismiss the vitality of a topic like sexual assault shows a level of negligence that can be detrimental to students in terms of their mental health and function within the school. Students need to learn in an environment that is designed to maximize their understanding of the concepts. Anything less will hinder their comprehension.

    Since they hope to maintain a good reputation, the school board put the books back until they were reevaluated with the correct policy. We have thanked them for listening to our voices as students and making positive change, even if it is not as much as we would personally like.

    As co-president of PARU, I hope to apply what I learned in this article to my community. PARU has a wide network of individuals, such as Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., and I know that she and many others would love to implement a model like this to better suit learners and the children of our future.

    In the business world, which I have not fully yet stepped foot into, there are barriers to social change that I think can be broken down. One of these barriers is that the employees may have some unconscious personal bias that affects the way they work or interact with customers, such as racism.

    In my experience, I spoke many times in front of the school board. These board members, who vowed to serve the students and their community, were not outright racist and didn’t make specific rude remarks or actions, but I still felt uncomfortable. They seemed somewhat dismissive and did not seem to be fully listening when I spoke. I felt insecure as their body language seemed to ‘hang back’ rather than engage. For example, they were doing their own things and talking to each other. I cannot change their opinions, but I can make sure that the opinions of the current and future learners are not influenced by the board members. For so long, I let people call me racist names and say racist stuff, even if it was micro-racism or just outright racism. I had become numb to the racism I faced, but PARU woke me up with a bucket of ice water to the face.

    The DEI model also shows the shifts in global social relations. While businesses still deeply value their reputation, they have to, above all, maximize their earnings. This is the sad reality: businesses that utilize models like this one would open themselves up to a larger customer field. They see this as a money-making opportunity.

    When reading this article, I also thought of a former PARU member’s analogy that could work for businesses since it ended up working for my school’s club. She said that speaking up against these racial problems is like being in a quiet classroom. At first, people are hesitant to talk; they do anything to not make a single noise. Suddenly, there is a sound: a cough or page flip. The second the silence is broken, the classroom will never be the same. Soon, people will start talking to each other and the teacher will find it hard to quiet the students. Fighting for what one thinks is right is the same way: it takes a lot to make the first step, but it will be worth it in the end because whether you see it now or not, you have supporters. The noise and interruption in this scenario are not a bad thing at all. Rather, it was encouraged as it is what eventually creates a comfortable environment that people function in. That is what we need for our society.

    Businesses have already moved towards providing a more welcoming environment for all groups of people: they have shown support for LGBT+ people and celebrated Black History Month and Asian Heritage Month. Also, they have created gender-neutral bathrooms.

    PARU has helped me find myself amongst the teenage troubles I faced. In a community where micro-racism existed, I found a welcoming environment where I was encouraged to share my voice. Recently, I was involved in a documentary that addressed the negativity of book bans. By taking action against racism, I have made a step towards embracing a more equal world. It is nice to see businesses try to do this, be it for financial reasons or intrinsic reasons.

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