Diversity and cases: context

By Emma Simmons

Many birds on a wireOver two articles, in conversation with researchers, educators and school leaders from across the globe, we address and examine the underrepresentation of people of diverse backgrounds, of subjects, and environments in teaching cases. Part 1 explores the context of these issues.

Cases and reality

One of the key calling cards of the case method is that it facilitates the exploration of ‘real life’ problems in a safe environment. But, what if that depiction of the status quo, is outdated, or if the ‘reality’ presented in a case is entrenched in a world that effectively ignores, stereotypes, excludes or invalidates vast pools of talented individuals, groups and places? What if teaching materials circumvent the uncomfortable ‘realities’ that governments, institutions, business and management - in fact the majority of seats of power and influence worldwide - neither look, feel, nor are, equal or inclusive? What about Diversity?

Natasha Katuta MwilaAccording to De Montfort University’s Natasha Katuta Mwila: “One of the purposes cases serve is to give the case learner a realistic scenario in which circumstances need to be analysed, and critical consideration given to practical recommendations for action. We lose the realistic element if we do not consider diversity.” In the experience of Dr Mwila, encompassing diversity in the subjects, protagonists, types of organisations, governance, and locations represented in cases can enhance their impact: “Diversity allows learners to find cases relatable: the more relatable, the more at ease students are in placing themselves in the scenarios, and the greater the critical engagement of the learner. I have found the range of practical recommendations that emerges from cases that address diversity far exceeds that of those not taking this approach.”

Genevieve Macfarlane SmithOf course, tens of thousands of cases and other teaching materials are regularly written, selected and used, enjoyably and effectively, in classes across the world. But to the extent that they are unrepresentative or involve stereotyping, the profile of subjects, protagonists and settings has to be a matter both educators and institutional leaders need to address if they are to benefit and serve their stakeholder communities fairly. At the Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Genevieve Macfarlane Smith explains: “A lack of diversity in cases confirms and depicts the business leadership archetype as usually white and male. This can send a signal to many students that they do not qualify to be a leader, if their profile does not match. Students are increasingly diverse in multiple ways and we must ensure that we make the curriculum diverse too.”

External influences

World events, such as the Me Too movement, or the death of George Floyd, have taken their place, at centre stage on the news agenda, subsequently gripping the public imagination and inspiring previously overlooked or silenced individuals to have their voices heard. Addressing these issues and taking visible action has become a widespread necessity. Universities and business schools have inevitably become aware of this social imperative and many have, or already had, started to take steps towards more diversity and inclusion, though the intensity of such efforts and the perceived level of urgency varies.

At the UNC Kenan-Flagler Bradley StaatsSchool of Business, Bradley Staats testifies to the impact of recent events. “As an institution, we had been actively engaging with the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda for some time, but there is no doubt that the death of George Floyd changed and heightened the discussion, and saw our students coming forward to express their concerns and aspirations. We turned an existing diversity elective, Inclusive Leadership, into a first year, required core course in the full-time MBA and required our second year students to take one of several, existing, diversity electives.” Professor Staats adds: “Today, we see these issues becoming more complex, more identities needing to be expressed and more potential for conflict - a veritable confluence of interests. As management educators, it is our job to prepare people to be flexible and inclusive with each other as a part of their future success.”

Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson developed and teaches the UNC Kenan-Flagler Inclusive Leadership course. “The issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion have become the most important topics of our time,” she says, “and people are generally, simply, not trained in how to approach them. ‘Mistakes’ in this area can have huge impacts for businesses.” Dr Dickinson observes how her students have understood that these issues are integral to their future careers. “MBA students have already had work experience and they realise that they will become the leaders of tomorrow; one day, managing and navigating difficult diversity issues is going to be a fundamental part of their job.”

Campus diversity

Institutions have been reacting over the last few years with many diversity initiatives such as updating personnel and administrative policies, hierarchical structures, buildings (e.g. gender neutral toilet/washroom facilities), and the curriculum, to ensure that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are visible and lived values on their campuses and especially in the classroom. Major steps have by no means been taken at all schools worldwide yet and, even where they have, the wide variety of dispersed teaching materials individual faculty select for their programmes are often one of the last building blocks to be examined in a diversity perspective. This is an important issue regardless of whether cases and other items have been created within an institution, or externally sourced, and a number of schools have begun, or are committing, to fully audit these.

Against this backdrop of constructive intent on the part of schools, across multiple fronts, progress towards diversifying the faculty body itself (including those researchers who stand in front of the students to teach), ensuring equality of opportunity to join or climb the academic ladder, or indeed diversifying the profile of the people that lead educational institutions still lags painfully, and arguably inexcusably, behind. A scroll down the deceptively simplistic visual depiction of the diversity of those thousand or so individuals that ‘lead’ the UK by thecolourofpower.com, which includes those at the top of universities, business, law and medicine - all of which use cases in training - is impactful and deeply shocking. Meanwhile, student cohorts have been consistently reflecting ever more on diversity.

Fundamentally, ever more young women are coming through high school with the qualifications to benefit from Higher and Further Education, and increasingly in subjects (such as Science, Engineering, Medicine and Business), which, as little as 30 years ago, were the predominant and pre-destined domain of men. Leading international business schools such as INSEAD, which were specifically founded after the Second World War with a rationale and mission that included maximising the diversity of nationalities represented in the student cohort, then almost exclusively men of course, have today ever more balanced numbers of Elizabeth Gordonfemale and male participants on some programmes. So, it is no surprise that the impetus for changing what is being taught, by whom, and the cases and materials used, often comes from students. At Columbia Business School (CBS), Elizabeth Gordon heads up Columbia CaseWorks (CCW). “It was our students who requested that they see people like themselves represented in cases. We have set five-year goals for CCW including achieving a 50% female representation rate among important case players, to reflect the multiple types of diversity within the student body, and to develop new cases with more people of color protagonists.”

Business and diversity

Kate SangThe world of business has also been looking for change from schools, even if - perhaps also because - the majority of businesses still have a very long way to go in establishing greater diversity and inclusion among their own staff and stakeholders. Many sectors have become aware of these failings and seek to employ future executives with the skills to embrace, embody and develop the diversity agenda. According to Kate Sang at Edinburgh Business School, “There have been initiatives targeting more gender diversity in sectors such as construction, which have yet to deliver significant impact. Businesses and organisations such as trade unions know that to be successful and future-proof they will need to reflect the increasingly varied profiles of their client and stakeholder bases. In the case of disability, for example, added impetus for understanding and dealing well with issues of diversity and inclusion is coming from governments seeking to bring people off social benefit payments and get them into work,” adds Professor Sang.

Not least, school leaders want to make sure that their regular recruiters don’t go elsewhere to find bright future staff at another school where the pedagogical commitment to DEI may be further advanced. The managers businesses seek must increasingly be able to navigate this landscape, and, ideally, also represent more diverse profiles. Some schools have already been moving to answer these calls specifically with more relevant cases and study options. According to Genevieve Macfarlane Smith, “Our Equity Fluent Leadership course, which is delivered at all learning levels, enables students to understand the value of different lived experiences and courageously use their power to address barriers, increase access, and drive change for positive impact. The course focuses on business strategies that create value for the firm, and a more equitable society.”

Sarah SouleAt Stanford Graduate School of Business (Standford GSB), Sarah Soule clarifies the responsibility of schools to the future careers of its participants: “We need to provide students with a more aspirational view of business. Studies show that diversity is important for innovation and business outcomes, thus if we want people from diverse backgrounds to see themselves in leadership roles, we need to portray this in our classrooms and materials.” Professor Soule identifies the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives at Stanford GSB, which she curates as part of her Senior Associate Dean role, as “mission critical” for the school: “DEI efforts are tied to our mission of education and research, and our goal of teaching principled and purposeful leaders who will make positive change in business and society. We aim to have our faculty and staff view their work through a DEI lens, such that they see their work - which includes their case writing and use of cases in the classroom (watch Professor Soule talking about uncovering stereotypes in classroom materials) - as connected to DEI more broadly.”

Definitions and language

Nicole HawkinsBut to take any such actions as depicted above, the scope and the language of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion need to be fully grasped and understood by institutional leaders and those tasked with recalibrating teaching materials. At Saint Leo University, Nicole Hawkins helps us approach the issues with humility: “If you are not in a particular community, including of a certain race or minority group, you will not understand how it feels to be.” Nevertheless, she points out, “the Diversity umbrella has expanded, so, Equity is making sure that everyone has an opportunity to be at the table and Inclusion is making sure their voices are heard across it.” Dr Hawkins includes Belonging as the crucial fourth element that schools, their teaching and businesses more broadly, are well advised to add: “Belonging is your voice being heard, and it is speaking to an environment in which you are valued and appreciated,” she explains.

At every juncture, it is essential to realise that the context of Diversity is also constantly evolving and changing. School leaders and faculty will often find that many of their students are better versed, more aware, and as a younger, more diverse, generation, in a position to embrace this much faster than they do, not least because they are more tuned in to change and a global discussion through their use of social media. Notwithstanding, Kate Sang comments that she is all too frequently taken aback by one of the final year students she teaches giving feedback after a class to the effect that she has been the first tutor to “talk about someone like me.” Those at the top, will often belong to an older demographic and one that traditionally holds power, so it is incumbent on such individuals to take responsibility for learning about diversity and inclusion, to keep educating and updating themselves and colleagues, and to build multifaceted and widely representative teams to work together on new and evolving initiatives. According to Bradley Staats: “The definition of diversity is broadening into a recognition that all sorts of people have talents to accomplish remarkable things. At schools we have to make sure that we are living this, rather than ‘just’ teaching it. We are trying to develop more of a ‘lean in’ culture as a school, and speaking personally, and as a ‘white male’, I am also committed to continually research, and educate myself, in this area.”

The political and social context of education itself never holds still either. Natasha Katuta Mwila highlights a topical example: “The current buzzword is decolonisation. In my world, this is mirrored by increased diversity. Diversity in cases contributes to decolonisation of the curriculum and this has to be an important part of any school seriously concerned with making practical changes in order to decolonise.”

Diversity ‘groups’

So, it is the ‘group’ referred to as ‘white male’ that has hitherto dominated business, government, those who educate about them, and therefore also the cases and teaching materials used. This reflects the structural framework of most societies worldwide that business educators and faculty operate in, and are unavoidably part of. The largest historically disadvantaged and underrepresented group (around 50% of the population!) is evidently women, probably the first 'group' to seek better representation at business school. But, who in business, education or any other part of society, can, or should, adjudicate on the relative aspirational weightings both between these groups and the many greater or smaller minority groups encompassed in any selected definition of ‘diversity’? These include, for example, ability, age, disability, economic class, ethnicity, gender identity, geographical location or origin, indigenous status, nationality, political affiliation or ideology, professional role, race, religion, sectarian allegiance, sexual orientation, special interest group membership, and more. All, arguably, have a right to be recognised, represented and heard. So, should any such school guidelines be led by the views or needs of business, government and wider society, or should they firstly reflect and serve the student body? Can such a ‘pecking order’ ever be neutral of prejudice or cultural norms in decision makers? How wide does the net need to be re-cast? How granular or systematic should the process of active inclusion be? In the syllabus for her Inclusive Leadership course, Elizabeth Dickinson includes among the objectives to: “Assist both represented and underrepresented groups in better understanding, managing, and addressing inclusive leadership-related matters; Better understand inclusion, equity, and belonging (and not just diversity); Include all individuals in inclusive leadership conversations, not just underrepresented groups.”

Shaun GoldfinchAt the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), Shaun Goldfinch oversees the case programme. He sheds light for us on regionally specific complexities relating to indigenous peoples, with matters of diversity affected by constitutional and/or Treaty issues. For example, Maori is an official language in New Zealand and Maori people a growing 16.5% of the population, and fully constitutionally recognised. Faculty would therefore be expected to include Maori-relevant materials and it would appear strange not to. This view is also developing in Australia, although Australia’s Aboriginal people do not have the same constitutional recognition; though similar in absolute numbers to Maori in New Zealand, they represent just 3.3% of the Australian population. According to Professor Goldfinch, “These issues can challenge educators seeking to develop materials backed up by the appropriate knowledge, access and lived experience, and raise questions over who is qualified to write cases, so need to be treated carefully and sensitively.” ANZSOG continues to add cases relating to Aboriginal and Maori indigenous groups to its case library.

Robin DiAngeloSo, how does one avoid the danger of overlooking, prioritising, or playing off, one - potentially - disadvantaged group, at the expense of any other(s)? And how should intersectionality (when someone belongs to two or more groups eg a disabled, pregnant, black woman, or a transgender, older person) be adequately accommodated, when such groups also tend to receive disproportionately higher levels of disadvantage? In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo illustrates the issue with a historical example: “… I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the intersection of race and gender in the example of [US] suffrage; white men granted suffrage to women, but only granted full access to white women. Women of color were denied full access until the Voting Rights Act of 1964.” All these kinds of matters will impact on the development of teaching materials, pose challenges and represent choices that need to be made, and potentially explained and justified, by educators. It is clear that there is an enormous and treacherous mountain to climb in addressing them (including understanding and navigating the ‘cancel culture’ which we will look at in Part 2 of this article) for which bucket loads of sensitivity, skill and patience are required. These necessary processes and discussions are difficult. Dr DiAngelo cautions: “Exclusion by those at the table doesn’t depend on wilful intent; we don’t have to intend to exclude for the results of our actions to be exclusion.” She advises: “… we would ideally guide each other in this work with compassion; it is much easier to look at something unwanted within ourselves if we don’t feel judged or criticized.”

For Elizabeth Gordon, initiatives embracing diversity both at a school level and in regard to teaching materials must be understood as “works in progress. Our school now has a Vice Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and policies and procedures continue to be put in place. For example, if offence has been caused to anyone in the classroom or elsewhere in the school, there is now a person and a process to address the issue." Columbia Business School’s student-run diversity, equity, and inclusion advisory board, CBS Reflects, has a longstanding commitment to addressing these issues both inside and outside of the classroom. Their annual climate survey provides valuable feedback to the faculty and administration about the MBA experience, covering topics such as cohesion in student clusters, the sense of belonging at social gatherings, and representation and inclusivity in classroom materials. For CaseWorks, CBS Reflects is a conduit to student concerns regarding diversity, equity and inclusion at the school.

Heather McGregorAt Edinburgh Business School, Executive Dean, Heather McGregor is an optimistic voice, believing that business schools are probably better positioned to address these challenges than other institutions: “Business schools … are already so successful in their pursuit of diversity that it almost goes unnoticed - diversity, that is, of nationality. Most business students sit alongside a wider range of peers by nationality than any other student body … why have we been so successful? How can business schools … apply it to other forms of diversity?” writes Professor McGregor.

Case method as an opportunity

One constructive approach to this massive challenge is to reflect on one of the fundamentals of a management education, which is to help participants learn to manage in, and through, change and uncertainty, something for which the case method is a powerful and proven tool. The fact that cases are essentially stories, which contributes to their accessibility, also presents an opportunity for schools as they develop and refine their diversity and inclusion pedagogy. Cases are also hugely flexible: they can be based on real events or be fictitiously constructed; protagonists only rarely have to be depicted in a single racial or gender specific way; geographical location can in many instances be selected to support the needs and experience of the local class. Further, cases have the pedagogical potential to include complex issues around diversity, embedded in business scenarios, right across all management disciplines, and far beyond Organisational Behaviour and Ethics, for example, where cases dealing with diversity as a topic are usually to be found. The case discussion itself and the ‘safe environment’ the instructor creates in the case classroom, offer great potential to facilitate and support students, faculty and schools in the broadening of their engagement with these issues.

So are the initiatives that schools are taking and planning having any effect? Should targets be set? Those we spoke to generally affirmed that feedback from students and businesses to date is constructive and good. There is a very long way to go, but a start has been made. According to Nicole Hawkins, “Research already shows evidence of positive feedback and outcomes from programmes that support Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, and we will certainly start to see more. Ultimately, institutions have to measure student outcomes and the effectiveness of their teachers and teaching, so they need to measure their Diversity initiatives too. If they do, they will soon be able to observe their campus impact and, in the future, the impact on alumni too.”

In Part 2, to be published in Connect in April 2021, we will explore practical approaches schools are taking to increase the development and use of diversity-fluent case materials, and the support being offered to educators.

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