Improving Diversity: Lessons From Business Schools

Improving Diversity: Lessons from Business Schools

Diversity has long been lacking in corporate America. The average growth rate in minority representation on Fortune 500 boards has been less than half a percent a year since 2004.

On business school campuses, efforts to improve diversity have been improving. According to a GMAC survey, 64% of full-time MBA programs in the U.S. reported making special recruitment efforts in order to increase the number of female applicants to their programs. Fortune recently looked at how B-schools are trying to address the diversity challenge and what lessons the business industry can learn from their efforts.


Historically, MBA programs have focused on maximizing profit over everything else, all things considered. But many B-school faculty are now starting to shed light on issues of diversity, inclusion, and race in their curricula.

“We would talk about aggregate numbers or a particular company, but putting an equity lens to it, looking at it demographically or other ways to highlight, looking at what we can do about it as managers is missing from a lot of curricula,” Sevin Yeltekin, dean of the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester, tells Fortune.

That’s helped spur more thought-provoking classroom discussions—something that’s not only helped students learn, but professors as well. Yeltekin says it’s practice that has pushed professors to ask hard questions.

“Why does income look so skewed?” Yeltekin tells Fortune. “What are some policies that could be implemented?”


When B-schools first started thinking about addressing the lack of diversity on campus, many focused their efforts on simply meeting quotas for representation. But some experts say that type of thinking is hindered by short-term objectives.

Attempts at equity, starting in the 1960s, “were really about getting faces inside the institution,” Martin Davidson, professor of business administration and global chief diversity officer at The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, tells Fortune. “It was straight up about targets, quotas, representation. There are limitations to that method. You change the number of people and four or five years later they’re gone.”

Davidson says that if an organization wants to truly address race and gender, it needs to focus on long-term objectives and have “an overarching model of diversity and difference that allows leaders, MBAs, corporate leaders to think strategically about this.”


In recent years, there’s been an increased focus on the importance of soft skills, such as empathy. Studies have shown that the most effective leaders are ones who practice compassion and empathy.

“Empathy as a skill is even more important to leadership in times of crisis,” Abby Scott, Assistant Dean, MBA Career Management and Corporate Partnerships, Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley, tells “Having empathy for your employees and customers is critical, and I have to think going forward it will only grow in importance.”

Often, a lack of empathy exists simply because people do not know or understand one’s struggle—even when it comes to your own personal and family history.

“Unless understanding, morality, and ethics play a strong role, it’s too easy for individuals and organizations to backslide, which has been the history of diversity and inclusion efforts in business since the 1960s,” Erik Sherman, of Fortune, writes.

Sources: Fortune, Fortune, CNN,

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