“Diversity” in the MBA Sense of the Word

Recently we asked Debbie Rosenbaum, a recent Harvard JD/MBA graduate and one of our expert admissions consultants, for her thoughts on what “diversity” means in the classroom. What follows are Debbie’s thought on the best way to think about diversity as it relates to assembling an interesting and productive cohort of people from different walks of life:

“Diversity” has become a recent buzz word among business schools. Institutions have accepted the idea that diversity serves not only as a strategic differentiation between increasingly similar business school curricula, but its effect also creates a more robust academic and social experience for students.

As a Latina woman who recently graduated from a top 10 business school, I have been impressed with schools’ efforts to create more statistically diverse faculties and student bodies while fostering increasingly inclusive environments. However, I will admit that business school (in addition to being the only place where the line for the ladies restroom is shorter than the line for the men’s restroom) is the only place to date where I have felt like a minority.

Traditionally, MBA programs have been dominated by white males–a trend not driven by some national conspiracy to deny women and minorities opportunities for achievement. This bias previously made sense: C-level positions were overwhelmingly filled with individuals who had access to education, wealth and opportunity. Today, however, business schools have slowly adjusted the statistics of their students, faculties and administrations, as women and racial minorities have begun to shatter the glass ceiling at the highest echelons of corporate America.

Businesses that continue to promote discriminatorily for top-level positions, in order to maintain the “good ol’ boys” atmosphere, are finding themselves at a competitive disadvantage; tangentially, business schools are learning that applicants are actively seeking the diversity that is becoming standard in professional life. In short, what started as a legal effort to ensure equal protection has shifted into the policy that diversity is actually also “good for business.”

Diversity Among Business School Students and Faculty
85 Broads, a global women’s business network, notes women make up approximately half of the population and only about 30 percent of top MBA programs. Minorities–especially African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans–make up about a third of the population of the United States and yet only 7 percent of top MBA programs. Surely, the low numbers for women and minorities is in part due to the historical and social factors described above. But given the genuine efforts business schools have put forward to create more inclusive and diverse environments, the continued lack of representation remains troublesome. It is possible that these groups continue not to have the same access to opportunity; it is also possible that, as the National Society of Hispanic MBAs argues, the discrepancy is at least in part due to the lack of role models and financing.

Business school faculties suffer from the same lack of diversity, as indicative by the recent announcement by five Massachusetts business schools, which have formed a collaborative to increase their ranks of minority professors, mainly African-American and Hispanics.

Diversity of Gender, Race… and Thought
Despite these shortcomings, many business schools have recently made concerted efforts to rectify the gender and racial divergence, not because they legally have to, but rather because they find it in their best interest to do so. Diverse student bodies serve a variety of purposes. First, diversity in the classroom creates a more robust the academic experience. For schools that rely on faculty-led student discussions to teach subjects like leadership and marketing, a mixed student body helps illuminate minority views and perspectives that might not otherwise be addressed. Students from different backgrounds are also critical in providing exposure to real-world situations.

Outside the classroom, diversity also plays an important role in the business school experience. Interacting socially with individuals who come from different backgrounds and different points of view creates a more interesting social environment for students looking to expand their personal and professional networks beyond their already existing circles. At the end of the day, the real value of diversity is not in the statistical percentage of minorities; but rather in the product that diversity engenders: diversity of thought.

As institutions begin to take diversity seriously, we can only hope that the proverbial glass ceiling continues to shatter in corporate America as well.

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