By Fiona Murray and Ray Reagans | MIT Sloan Ideas Made to Matter | September 22, 2021
U.S. business schools do not reflect the face of the U.S. population. Traditionally, their students are predominantly white and male. According to accreditation organization AACSB International, 8% of MBA students at its member organizations in the U.S. are Black (although Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population), 9% are Latino (19% of the population), and only 41% globally are women.
These numbers are even lower in corporate executive ranks. Black people hold only 3% of executive or senior-level roles at U.S. companies with at least 100 employees, according to U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission data. And women hold only 21% of C-suite level roles in the U.S.
Recent events — including the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, inequities in health highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising violence against various ethnic groups — spotlight this lack of diversity, equity and inclusion. Academia and business can do better.
The MIT Sloan School of Management recognizes the need to improve DEI among its students, faculty, and staff. Like many schools and companies, we have spent the past several years designing a strategy to do so. What are we doing that’s different from the diversity efforts that have struggled or sputtered out in many organizations? By building upon decades of MIT Sloan research in organizational design and system dynamics, we’ve developed a holistic approach, one that we believe has a better chance of improving DEI in a more lasting way than traditional methods that have frequently been applied. At the heart of the strategy is a strong belief, grounded in our academic research and lived experience, that systemic problems require systemic solutions. We hope that a more systemic approach will not only yield enduring change at MIT Sloan, but also provide lessons that can be adopted at organizations around the world.
Defining the problem
Our sharpened focus on DEI began in 2019 when our student senate, supported by a committed group of alumni, shared its disappointment in MIT Sloan’s slowness to increase diversity across our population of students, faculty, and staff. That year, the graduating MBA class at MIT Sloan, which includes students in our Leaders for Global Operations program, was 8% Black, 11% Latinx (both as a percentage of U.S. citizens and permanent residents) and 42% female. The senate requested the creation of a senior (dean-level) position focused on DEI to signal the school’s commitment to DEI and make that commitment more visible.
In response, our dean, David Schmittlein, formed a task force of faculty, staff, students, and alumni who, after a series of meetings, interviews, and deep dives into the data and experience of our community, published their findings in February 2020. The group recommended ways to increase diversity and build a more inclusive climate both inside and outside the classroom. In April 2020, in recognition of the scope of the change needed, Dean Schmittlein tapped the two of us as longtime MIT faculty members to be Associate Dean for Innovation and Inclusion and Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, respectively, with a commitment to bring in an Assistant Dean for DEI with professional experience in leading change in a range of organizations. We were joined by Bryan Thomas, Jr., in August 2021.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic surged across the country, highlighting health disparities among racial and socioeconomic groups. Then came the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, which further energized the already-growing Black Lives Matter movement and led to a wave of outrage and protest worldwide. At MIT Sloan, the Black Business Students Association said Black students felt unsupported by our community during these troubling times. The group organized a town hall meeting where administrators, faculty, staff, and students had a frank discussion of the situation. The honesty with which students shared their suffering added a new and very personal urgency to our mission.
We assumed our new roles well aware of research that has found that traditional DEI approaches don’t work. We knew we wanted to do things differently. As we reviewed the task force recommendations, we drew on MIT research to devise an approach that would begin with individuals, move to groups, and ultimately build a constructive culture of conscious inclusion across the entire organization.