“We hardly ever get a chance to talk about race in class,” a business school student recently remarked to me. We had just finished a discussion on racial colour-blindness. She was right. In business schools, diversity tends to be “mere decoration” while the focus stays on the “bottom line”.
This is perverse since UK and US business schools have the most popular (and lucrative) university courses, often with highly diverse students from all over the world. In 2015/16, management courses in the UK had the third highest proportion of students of colour, after medicine and law.
However, as with all British BAME undergraduates, business management students of colour are significantly less likely to gain a 2:1 or a first class degree, even where they have the same prior attainment as their white counterparts.
At first glance, you might assume this discrepancy is the result of socio-economic disadvantage or poor schooling. But after adjusting for other factors (including prior attainment), there remains an unexplained 15-point attainment gap between white and BAME students.
The answer to closing the gap is to decolonise the curriculum in business schools. Most business curriculums are largely based on knowledge produced by white men from North America and other anglophone countries of the global north. Issues of diversity, racial prejudice, historically-entrenched inequities and underrepresentation are barely considered.
As the Left of Brown blog points out, business schools also take a worryingly racially colour-blind approach. This ideology ignores the barriers that many people of colour face. For instance, business school leadership curriculums extol the virtues of “charismatic” or “authentic” business leaders. But these are universalist categories perpetuating the myth that skin colour makes no difference to one’s chances of becoming a successful corporate leader.
Business schools’ predominantly white scholars and administrators, reflecting our society, don’t see race and don’t talk about race. Yet racial colour-blindness creates more problems than it solves.
We need to put race and ethnicity at the centre of learning about organisational behaviour, leadership and decision-making. This will provide students with a management knowledge that is realistic and relevant. For example, in my undergraduate course, I include racial colour-blindness as a concept students can use to understand the social environment of business. Students then discuss what racial colour-blindness means to them.
Decolonising the curriculum is, however, just one step – we also need to address the everyday experiences of BAME students and staff. An internal reportin my university, the University of Massachusetts, found that colleagues of colour disproportionately take on additional teaching and student support work – especially women.
We need our vice-chancellors, deans and senior administrators to be racially and culturally literate so they can really transform business schools. This will take more than glossy photos of diverse groups of students on university prospectuses.
To make inclusion an organising principle means developing a deep understanding of one’s business school to foster practices where race, ethnicity and differences are collectively addressed. This might includeengaging students in helping to diversify the curriculum. This process would look at the erasures and silencing of the past, for instance through colonial direct rule, and of the present, through structural inequities and racial colour-blindness.
Equally, we need to train administrators and staff to counter their bias in students’ assessment, mentoring and support. Such efforts shouldbe combined with the hiring, nurturing and promoting of BAME faculty who are woefully underrepresented in UK universities.
Business degrees are the most popular – and profitable – in the higher education sector and yet they still perpetuate racial and ethnic inequities. We cannot continue to shortchange our BAME students. It is time we offered them a better deal.
• This article was amended on 13 September 2018 to add a citation to the Left of Brown blog.
Alessia Contu is an associate professor of management at the University of Massachusetts
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