Amid Black Lives Matter protests this summer, the 14 college of business deans of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) decided to make a joint statement in support of diversity, equity and inclusion in their programs.
They are “soundly committed to fostering a sense of community that is welcoming to and respectful of all individuals — students, faculty and staff,” their statement read.
“Likewise, it is our duty to prepare our future business leaders for careers in an international and increasingly diverse workforce. We strive for inclusion, equity and diversity where all voices, viewpoints and backgrounds are valued and supported.”
The SEC — the college athletic conference headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama — includes the University of Alabama, University of Arkansas, Auburn University, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, the University of Kentucky, Louisiana State University, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, the University of Missouri, the University of South Carolina, the University of Tennessee, Texas A&M University and Vanderbilt University.
After the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota, “We all just said, ‘we’ve got to do something,’” says Dr. Sharon Oswald, dean of the college of business and professor of management at Mississippi State University. “Everybody was in agreement.”
To Dr. Eli Jones, it was important for the group of leaders to take an official, collective stance amid an ongoing national conversation about racism. He’s the dean and a professor of marketing at the business school at Texas A&M University.
“I’m an African American business dean at a top 20 public business school,” Jones says. “I felt like I should be the one to tee this up. And I have really good partners. We’re all happy that we were actually able to send a strong signal to the public that, as part of our Southeastern Conference, we all embrace diversity, equity and inclusion.”
He believes business schools have a significant role to play in combatting racial inequities across sectors by training future CEOs.
“The good news is, we’re developing the next generation of business leaders,” he says. “Our graduates go on to start companies and lead companies.”
But it’s not just about students. He also thinks that the heads of business colleges can serve as a resource to companies trying to draft their own statements about diversity and diversify their ranks, Jones added. For example, he’s been called on by business leaders to talk about what’s “at the heart” of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“When you consider some of the horrific things that have happened of late — even more recently since the George Floyd murder — what we’re saying is, ‘Hey, look, we count too. We are individuals, we are people, too,’” he says.
“That’s what’s really at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement in my opinion, particularly when you consider that for hundreds of years this racism has existed. I think what’s encouraging today is we have more and more people who aren’t in underrepresented minorities, we have more White Americans, we have folks who are outside the community asking the right questions.”
Business diversity by the numbers
The business world still has work to do.
About 4.1% of U.S. chief executive officers and 7.8% of people in management jobs were Black in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And Hispanics didn’t fare much better. They made up 9% of first- and mid-level managers and only 4% of executive or senior managers in 2018, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found. This year, there were only five Black CEOs and 10 Hispanic CEOs running a Fortune 500 company. That’s 1% and 2% of the list, respectively. Since 1999, there have been only 18 Black CEOs on the list in total.
And there are racial gaps in schools of business as well. Black students make up less than 10% of students enrolled in business schools in the U.S. on average, The Wall Street Journal reported.
A recent study — the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, or IDEALS — also found business to be an uncommon choice of major for Hispanic students in their sample. Out of 85, only one student with an undecided major chose business, and out of the 50% of Latino students who changed their majors, none switched to business.
Since 2009, the percentage of Black students taking the GMAT, the test required for many business and management graduate programs, has hovered at 8%. Hispanic students account for about 9% of test takers, according to a 2020 study by the nonprofit Graduate Management Admission Council.
Meanwhile, minorities are underrepresented among business school faculty as well. A 2016 study in the Journal of Education for Business found that only 4.2% of full-time business school instructors were Black while even less, 2.6%, were Latino.
The business case for diversity
But it’s in the interest of business programs to foster diversity, says Dr. Jared J. Llorens, a professor and interim dean at Louisiana State University’s College of Business. Preparing students to work in an economy made up of diverse people “only stands to benefit our broader economy moving forward,” he says.
For schools in the SEC that are located in “small-town” Mississippi, like Oswald’s, many students are first-generation college students and have never left the state before. So, she sees higher education as an opportunity to broaden their horizons and expose them to the type of diversity they’re sure to find when they enter the workforce.
“I don’t know that enough people understand that when they get out of school, the world might look a little different than it does for you,” Oswald says. “I think it’s very important to prepare our students to work in the world that we work in.”
For Llorens, that’s why it’s important for business classrooms to reflect the diversity of the state — and ideally the world at large — and why business school leaders should emphasize diversity as a “critical component” of their students’ education.
“It’s important to communicate to students that are both currently enrolled in our programs and considering enrolling in our programs that diversity and inclusion and equity matters, and it’s a priority for us,” he says.
“We see the value. We see the benefit. We understand we need to prepare students to have these broader societal impacts as they move forward.”
Study after study shows that diversity makes companies more successful, and the business world is increasingly aware of that reality. For example, a 2019 report from The Wall Street Journal on diversity in S&P 500 companies found that shares for the 20 most diverse firms in its analysis outperformed the shares of the least diverse companies. And as early as 2015, a McKinsey study reported that earnings increased 0.8% when racial diversity among leadership rose 10%. The most diverse companies were also more likely to have returns above the median for their industries.
“We’re working with students who are going to go on to lead companies, and they’ll have to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion because they’ll be leading diverse workforces, and so it’s important to us to get that mindset across,” Jones says.
“You’ve got to be willing to take risks in terms of equity and inclusion, because that’s exactly the kind of workforce that our graduates will be joining. So, it’s critical for our business schools to lead the way.”
This article originally appeared in the September 17, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.