Dean Erika James, who is known for her workplace-diversity research, is the first woman and African-American to lead Wharton in its 139-year history.

The Conversation: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Business

Welcome to The Conversation, a new feature that explores current events through a business lens, appearing each month in Knowledge@Wharton High School, an online business journal for high school students published by the Wharton Global Youth Program.

The global pandemic has added great uncertainty to our lives in the past six months, and yet many high school students have 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 has increased the focus on racial inequalities in the workplace. At the Wharton School, which often leads the conversation on global business issues and trends, 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 Wharton junior and co-founder of the Wharton Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Group, a new 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, recently 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.”

Wharton 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, 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. Most recently, Wharton undergraduate students gathered online in July for a town hall meeting 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, who was happy to learn about her employer’s weekly diversity speaker series while interning at Boston Consulting Group this summer, 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 the article Learning to Be Color Brave in the Related KWHS Stories with this post.

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.

4 thoughts 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. Ignoring the social repercussions, sexism and racism in the workplace actually hinder overall productivity, hurting businesses and the general economy. Hiring practices that slow women/gender minorities or POC’s from accessing jobs stop the brightest minds from being able to fully utilize their power to innovate. Unsafe workplaces that push vulnerable groups to leave incur transitionary costs like retraining, overtime for existing employees, and less perspectives in business decision-making. Education systems that use outdated benchmarks skim over passionate students who could make for future employees.

    From the government’s perspective, a labour force that isn’t discouraged or unemployed is where GDP is at a socially optimal output, as the economy is operating at full capacity. In the modern era, demographic economic data, like whether certain races or genders are more unemployed, can be very useful in replacing archaic methods of GDP calculation, and serve as more accurate measures of the economy. More importantly, this data offers more ways the government can target solutions for economic gaps.

    In my opinion, the most innovative businesses of the 21st century will be those that choose to hire and promote employees from 100% of the population. After all, the lottery of birth scatters the brightest minds across the world, it’s just up to the companies to find them.

    1. ** Wharton’s efforts to promote diversity in the workplace is one such step, helping bridge the gendered divide that has slowed the global economy down for decades. What needs to happen now is for all levels of education, from kindergarten to post-graduate, to step up and ensure all students have equal access to opportunity.

  3. Hurt. Ignored. Unvalued. That was how I felt sitting in our school’s community conversation zoom meeting addressing the increase in anti-asian hate crimes following the news of the Atlanta shooting of six Asian women. Why this moment so distinctly sticks to me today is not because of ignorant comments or hateful speech, but the lack thereof any comments in general. Out of the entire student body of over 600 students who were invited, only 40 people decided to tune into the meeting, a number that also included faculty and administration. In addition, the majority of students in the call also identified as Asian. Picture that: after a long day with what can only be described as extremely tragic news, a number of Asian students tune into a zoom seeking solidarity and support from their peers—only to be met with an empty zoom call of unopened cameras. While the meeting ended up being an extremely heartwarming exchange of Asian-identifying students sharing their experiences amid the difficult time, we all agreed in our shared disappointment of the lack of support from the rest of the student body.

    Admittedly, I am extremely thankful to have the privilege of going to a school that both invests in and prioritizes diversity and inclusion programs. For instance, we have a student-led Council of Diversity and Inclusion and an administration that is focused on D&I efforts. However, even in such a positive environment putting a spotlight on diversity, inequality and ignorance is still extremely prevalent in our school community.

    I truly want to applaud both Wharton and the Business community on their ongoing progress on Diversity and Inclusion. Seeing a spotlight on diversity as a trend truly is empowering and inspiring. Investing in such programs is so deeply important in providing a supportive environment for both students and staff of color to thrive in. In coordination with this, the increasing importance of diversity and the progress seen in the Business world makes me confident that as a society, we are on the right track to equality. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the existence of Diversity and Inclusion efforts doesn’t always equal a heightened awareness of bias and hate. Without an engaged audience, the necessary resources, and frequent evaluation, even the best Diversity and Inclusion program can impact little to no change.

    What sticks out the most to me in the article are the words of Dean Erika H. James, particularly where she states how “we simply haven’t prioritized [diversifying the workplace environment].” While I want to agree with James’s words, I think that problem goes even further than that. Not only has society not prioritized such diversity, it has actively worked to deter it. Income inequality between men and women has been something that we’ve been aware of for decades, and yet we are still struggling to meet that demand even today. Furthermore, hiring discrimination for Black American has existed from the moment they entered the labor force, yet no, let me reiterate, no advancements in hiring discrimination for Black American have been proven to have happened at all in the last thirty years. Acknowledging the issue at hand is commonly known as the first step in creating social change, yet progress on these issues have simply not happened.

    One prominent example of this in the scope of businesses is Amazon, a company that preaches and boasts about diversity and inclusion while simultaneously promoting systemic systems that perpetuate and exacerbate employment racism. Upon first glance, Amazon may seem like a front-liner in diversity statistics, as almost 26.5% of employees at Amazon identified as African American. However, a largely disproportionate number of these employees account for minimum wage front-line workers. (packing, delivering, shipping) Even for those working in higher positions, they are commonly faced with lower-level entry roles than they are qualified for and underlooked for promotions. This has become such an issue for Amazon that recruitment of employees of color for higher positions is becoming more difficult, as there isn’t much incentive to stay at Amazon if they aren’t even being considered for promotion. Even for those that do stay, they are disproportionately harmed by Amazon’s review evaluations where Black employees consistently receive lower reviews ratings than their white counterparts, thus less likely to be promoted. In light of this, it’s important to also point out that Amazon does have Diversity and Inclusion programs. In fact, Amazon’s diversity and inclusion managers commonly have decades of experience in the field, but as shown above, inequality remains engrained at Amazon. In most of these cases, the fault rarely falls on the D&I managers, who regularly report about working in an environment that isn’t entirely committed to diversity and a general lack of support and resources.

    At the end of the day, it’s undoubtable that diversity and inclusion efforts are an increasingly necessary part of businesses and the workplace. But Amazon isn’t just a cherry-picked example. Similar stories about the lack of change despite the presence of diversity and inclusion teams show that the existence of these programs do absolutely nothing to advance businesses to greater equality. What we do not need are performative, feel-good programs that dually cover up problematic apparatuses and limit future growth. If a business truly wants to invest in diversity and inclusion, it’s important for it to provide adequate support and be serious about diversity. Diversity is not just a pretty label to slap onto an institution, but an investment with far-reaching impacts.

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