Building More Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Cultures

Faculty from The PhD Project share their thoughts.
Banner ad for The PhD Project stating "Building More Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Cultures," with a photo of three graduates

In 1994, The PhD Project was formed by current sponsors KPMG Foundation, AACSB International, and the Graduate Management Admission Council to change the landscape of business education. Our mission remains the same today—to increase workplace diversity by increasing the diversity of business school faculty who encourage, mentor, support, and enhance the preparation of tomorrow’s leaders. We have long recognized that encouraging underrepresented minorities to pursue PhDs would create role models and mentors that help ensure student success, while dispelling stereotypes in business school classrooms throughout North America.

Our network consists of more than 1,600 PhD Project business faculty and doctoral students, and their research spans the disciplines of accounting, finance and economics, marketing, management, and information systems. During the current climate, I’d like to share some of their expertise about ways that organizations can create diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

• Stephanie Creary, assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, discusses how to facilitate difficult conversations in her articles "A Framework for Leading Classroom Conversations about Race" and "How to Begin Talking About Race In the Workplace." “Educators can help learners feel less anxious and more effective engaging in conversations related to race, equity, and inclusion,” she says. For instance, she describes her RACE framework: Reduce anxiety by talking about race anyway; accept that anything related to race is either going to be visible or invisible; call on internal and external allies for help; and expect that you will need to provide answers, practical tools, and skill-based frameworks. Both educators and facilitators can use this framework in various learning environments, from academic classrooms to corporate settings.

• Miles Davis, president of Linfield University of McMinnville, Oregon, outlines five things people can do to make a difference in their communities in "The Urgency of the Moment":

  1. Begin with yourself. Are you the best you that you can be? Do you reflect the respect and dignity in your behavior that you wish to see in others? Do you work on your conscious and unconscious biases? Do you accept responsibility for your actions and seek to make right what you have done wrong?
  2. Support your family. There are those who are related to you by blood and those connected to you by spirit. They are your family. Are you setting an example for your family to follow? Do you treat elders in your family with respect? Do you nurture the young ones coming up behind you? Do you share your knowledge, wisdom, and perspective, not from a plateau of hubris but one of caring and compassion?
  3. Support your community. Human beings define themselves by their communities. Do you seek out opportunities to support your community? Have you joined a coalition of like-minded individuals to help make it better, served on the board of a local nonprofit, volunteered to help those less fortunate? Do you buy local when there is an opportunity? Do you help a neighbor in need?
  4. Learn to think critically. The United States is a constitutional republic, a representative democracy, and a federal republic. This form of government requires informed citizenry capable of analyzing the issues of the time. When is the last time you read a book that challenged you intellectually? When was the last time you challenged your assumptions about those who think differently than you do? When was the last time you challenged your own assumptions about how things should be?
  5. Register to vote, and then vote. The form of government outlined in the Constitution of the United States only works if you engage with the government. The way to engage with the government is to vote. In fact, consider running for elected office yourself. Be the change you want to see.

• Oscar Holmes IV, associate dean of undergraduate programs and associate professor of management at Rutgers University–Camden in New Jersey, explains "The Importance of a Ph.D. in the DEI Space." He writes, “There are many smart, accomplished, experienced, and battle-tested people in the world. Without a doubt, smarts, accomplishments, experience, and overcoming challenges are all important and can provide people with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to make extraordinary contributions in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) spaces and others. Notwithstanding the DEI contributions that people without PhDs can make, people with PhDs can make unique contributions due to the type of intense training people receive while earning the degree. This rigorous training accounts for why the PhD is often considered the most prestigious and exclusive degree one can obtain.” In fact, estimates suggest that only 2 percent of the world’s population have earned one. Business PhDs are impressively taking the lead in reinforcing the unique contributions that PhDs can make in DEI spaces.

• Anthony C. Hood, Director of Civic iInnovation and associate professor of management at the Collat School of Business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, focuses much of his research on enhancing team effectiveness through building diverse and inclusive teams. For example, Hood writes that the secret to workplace success is psychological safety, defined as the extent to which team members feel comfortable engaging in potentially risky interpersonal behaviors such as speaking up for themselves and others, asking for help, expressing dissenting viewpoints, and being their authentic selves at work.

Hood asserts that diverse representation is a necessary first step in building teams with the capacity for creativity and innovation. However, diversity is not enough. Organizations must foster an inclusive culture of psychological safety among those with diverse backgrounds and expertise. This unlocks their collective creativity by allowing members to challenge and question one another’s ideas and preconceived notions, without making the discussion personal. However, despite its benefits for team effectiveness, unchecked psychological safety may also have a dark side. Members who are “too safe” may take liberties with a relationship by engaging in offensive behaviors such as making racially insensitive comments or sexually suggestive advances. A healthy balance of psychological safety is critical for interpersonal and professional effectiveness in the workplace and beyond. 

• Laura Morgan Roberts, professor of practice at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and Ella Washington, professor of practice at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., explain that "U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism." They outline three clear steps toward this action: acknowledge, affirm, and act. But they point out that it is just as critical to avoid these missteps: keeping silent, becoming overly defensive, and overgeneralizing.

For more than 25 years, The PhD Project has aspired toward a more equitable future for underrepresented students. Right now, our work is more important than ever. It is critical that faculty, administration, and leadership reflect the diversity of their students, while also bringing a diverse perspective and better understanding to all students.

More than 300 business schools participate in The PhD Project. To find out more how your university can get involved, please contact me at [email protected].

Blane_RuschakBlane Ruschak is president of the KPMG Foundation and The PhD Project.