The intersection of the global pandemic and the uprising around racism has highlighted the systemic obstacles that disproportionately affect Black people. Many corporations have responded with commitments to anti-racism and are beginning to hold their brands, employees, suppliers, and corporate partners accountable. But one important partner is often overlooked in these commitments: academia.
As Black business school professors, we notice that few make the connection between management programs and the lack of representation of Black executives (there are currently only three Black CEOs in Fortune 500 firms). But academia plays a critical role in shaping the next generation of leaders, and Black representation (or lack thereof) in materials and faculty can affect racial stratification. As a reckoning with systemic racism is upon us, we need to think about who is in front of the classroom as being predictive of who will be in the executive suite. Underrepresentation and lack of inclusion of Black faculty affects who business students see in classrooms and what is taught. The racial gap in academia reflects and feeds the inclusivity gap in corporate America.
If we are going to address that gap, corporations need to insist that academia does a better job training those entering the corporate workforce pipeline to both embrace and deliver on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). We’ve identified three areas where academia is currently falling short and offer nine strategies for corporations and academia to each do their part in equipping the next generation of leaders to meet the challenges of this changing world.
Lack of Exposure
Most business school students can graduate without ever taking a class taught by a Black professor, reading a teaching case with a Black protagonist, or experiencing a curriculum specifically designed to combat anti-Black racism. A 2017 study found that less than 1% of the 10,000 case studies published by Harvard Business School feature Black business leaders, even though Black-owned businesses represented 9% of all U.S. firms. Only 4% of U.S. business school professors are Black, Latino, or Native American; the percentage of Black faculty is a mere fraction. This lack of representation has deleterious effects for all students. Non-Black students who don’t learn about or understand the important role that Black talent plays in organizations and the benefits of inclusivity for innovation while in school may go on to exclude Black stakeholders in their organizations where they hold future jobs. Meanwhile, Black students who do not see themselves reflected in their programs, receive a tacit, yet powerful, message about their value and potential as leaders.
The absence of Black faces featured in the front of the classroom only reinforces the biased perception that leaders and key stakeholders are white. All of these dynamics shape your next hire or your next CEO.
The Minority Majority Market
Another area where most business schools fall short is highlighting the diversity of consumers. The buying power of Black consumers in the U.S., who represent only 14.6 % of the population, surpassed $1 trillion in 2016, and is expected to reach $1.5 trillion by 2021. Paradoxically, a Nielson report indicates that companies are decreasing their advertising investments directed at these same people. These Nielson reports also suggest that Black consumers are more likely to be influenced by advertisements on all platforms including mobile, television, radio, and the internet.
It’s not surprising to us that the lack of attention given to Black populations during the typical business school education (more on that below) results in a similar lack of corporate attention.
We are not arguing for increased consumerism or viewing Black people as mere consumers. But if companies were to center the needs of the Black people they serve, they would be much more likely to gain the cultural and racial insights to develop trust with and better serve this important population. Unfortunately, this cannot happen if most leaders are educated in a way that implies that Black people are an afterthought and DEI is not important. A failure to properly expose and train future business leaders to the needs of the Black people they claim to serve may feed the perception among students who eventually become executives that diversity, equity, and inclusion are “nice to have” but not “need to have.”
Being Black in Academia
Black professors face unique challenges. They report microaggressions such as being mistaken for non-academic staff, being told they don’t look like a professor, and being treated with less respect by students than their white colleagues. Many of the students they interact with have had little previous interaction with Black people in authority positions. And Black faculty balance extra, uncompensated work to support Black students. The #BlackIntheIvory stories reflected in over 90,000 tweets on social media bear witness to this dynamic, where Black scholars experience mental and physical damage from the marginalization and loneliness in the field.
Black faculty also face a less welcoming research environment. Consider a 2013 study that showed 75% of white people have only white friends. The tendency for people to seek out those who are similar to themselves means that Black faculty are often left out of the social networks that yield research collaborations, resulting in a “Black island,” which holds Black academics back. It is little wonder that Black faculty reporting higher levels of stress and job dissatisfaction.
The result is a vicious cycle of lower Black faculty retention and less representation among those training the world’s future executives. Recent studies show that while there is a broken pipeline in some fields, it would be a mistake to assume that these outcomes are due to a limited pipeline alone or to lower innate quality of Black scholars. “Pipeline problems” don’t account for the number of Black college graduates who don’t pursue or are dissuaded from pursuing PhDs because of experiences of exclusion, or for the attrition rate among Black scholars that leave academia due to dissatisfaction. This not only results in fewer Black faculty, but also a perceived devaluation of research related to race (with implications for publishing and career advancement). If a Black scholar decides to pursue “Black issues,” their career trajectory is negatively impacted because the topic is less valued or seen as less relevant to the majority of researchers — and practitioners.
Strategies to Move Forward
How can we resolve these issues? It will require leaders in both corporations and academia to take deliberate action. We offer nine strategies that we believe will transform academia to positively influence inclusivity in corporate America.
Do not treat DEI as a separate, elective class. Support the diversification of all educational materials. DEI should be woven into all business classes, as one would with ethics and innovation. Support the writing of cases with Black protagonists, and ensure your program includes a level of Black-related content that is commensurate with the buying power of Black people in the market.
Take a network approach. Formalize mentor programs, both for Black students early in their career paths and Black faculty at all stages of their careers. Develop programs at your institutions that will identify and support undergraduates and Master’s students who may pursue advanced degrees. This will contribute to the pipeline of Black faculty.
Share informal resources with Black colleagues. We don’t just want you to check in on us. Be deliberate about sharing the social and cultural capital in your networks: invite us to collaborate on projects, brainstorm with us on things but also make sure we have ownership over our ideas, and recommend us for opportunities, such as visibility-enhancing roles. Help us bridge the gaps we have inherited. This kind of outreach has made all the difference for those of us who have been successful in the current system.
Train all faculty on anti-Black racism. Give them the full picture. Systemic racism is affected by economic and legal policies, and the business models of tech businesses (i.e., facial recognition, AI, biased algorithms). Also bear in mind that many of the problematic behaviors reported by Black scholars in #BlackInTheIvory were committed by colleagues who themselves have been trained in systemically-racist institutions. It is important that we encourage all faculty to speak up when anti-Black racism rears its pernicious head, both to model the behavior for our future executives, and to lighten the invisible labor of Black faculty who should not always be expected to voice objection.
Corporate America’s Responsibility:
For many of the academic initiatives to be effective, corporate America must hold universities accountable for delivering well-trained and educated talent, and then commit to further developing that talent when it arrives at their doorstep. This starts with a mindset shift among hiring managers. Black people and other minorities cannot be seen as “token” hires or be pigeonholed into areas like “multicultural marketing,” because of their presumed inherent cultural competency. Businesses cannot rely on Black employees to be the all-knowing representatives of Black and minority consumerism. This is expertise that all hires in marketing should have. Thus, we suggest the following:
Assess your C-suite on the diversity of their succession bench. Are there any future Black directors, SVPs, EVPs, or president candidates being groomed internally? Are they being offered those positions? To what extent are their concerns heard? This assessment should be equivalent to any long-term initiative that the leadership team is focused on, such as reducing a company’s carbon footprint.
Emphasize the value of equality, not just the value in difference. Past research has shown that Black employees have greater concerns about representation, and that when firms take an approach to diversity that underscores equality, attrition among racial minorities reduces.
Hold stakeholders accountable. Reexamine recruiting efforts and realign them towards universities that have student enrollments and faculty representation that are reflective of society. Historically Black colleges and universities can be a source of top Black talent for businesses but based on sheer numbers, this is not enough to fill the corporate pipeline.
Invest in change. Compensate Black talent commensurate with their worth. Make intentional strategic investments in support of scholars and programs that reflect anti-racism and DEI. This includes formalizing relationships with universities and financial commitments in the form of named chairs, institutes, or faculty fellows.
Companies have a lot to gain from following through on these strategies. Research suggests that companies with more ethnically and culturally diverse boards are 43% more likely to show higher profits, and when employees believe their company supports diversity and helps them feel included, they report an 83% increase in their ability to innovate, as well as a 42% increase in team collaboration.
This is a critical time to reexamine the ways in which we work, educate, and lead. Rooting out anti-Black racism is difficult: it makes us uncomfortable, it is often subtle, and self-enhancement bias leads many to believe that it does not affect them. But we can all do this work and it has to focus on the places where our future business leaders are learning about their impact on society. It will take cooperation and commitment from both academic institutions and corporations to create leaders who know how to build inclusivity and shared prosperity.
Editor’s note: Authors are listed in alphabetical order.