Diversity in the classroom

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Executive MBA participant Robert Adediran of London Music Masters reflects on diversity and inclusion in both the workplace and academia.

Robert Adediran (far right) joined Cambridge Judge Business School in 2016 © Benjamin Ealovega

In many ways I am a bit of an anomaly as an Executive MBA student. I don’t work in a bank, I don’t run my own company and I’m not head of a global division for a major corporation. I never fly business class!

I am the executive director of a charity with a turnover of less than £1 million, a staff team of 10 and a not very good website. I currently have no office manager so I am ordering the stationery, trying to make sure we don’t run out of milk and dealing with our landlord’s complaints about scuff marks on the walls – which I think I caused when I hauled our Christmas tree out of the office at the start of the year!

So yes, I stick out a bit, but in many other ways I fit right in. I am hugely ambitious for the organisation I lead, I wake up in the morning wanting to change the world and believing that I can do it. I am involved in every finance, operations, HR, communications and strategic decision that takes place. I deal with clients, investors, press and the general public. The energy is high, the work is hard, and it is making an impact in society. It is rewarding, not because it is ‘charitable’, but because when you measure your margins in thousands of pounds rather than millions you have to work exceptionally hard and smart to produce world-class outcomes. And to do that on a daily basis is a huge reward.

One of the big challenges faced by the music industry, particularly the sub-section I work in, classical music, is a distinct lack of cultural diversity. For me, diversity is not really about skin colour, gender or disability – it is about ideas. And who doesn’t want more, better and new ideas in their business? The talent pool from which my sector recruits its artists, chief executives, programmers and critics is small. Actually it is tiny. And until more voices are heard, more stories are told and a greater diversity of experiences and ideas are available to enrich the performance, audiences will continue to experience only a fraction of the power and beauty that the art form is capable of conveying.

Coming to Cambridge each month from a work environment where diversity and inclusion is high on the agenda I am struck by the lack of gender diversity in the senior faculty. My experience at Cambridge Judge Business School has been excellent, and I hope that many more of my peers in the charitable sector will embark on the course, but the lack of gender diversity of the senior faculty is a concern [1] – one which Cambridge and the university sector as a whole is aware of. To date the lecturers we have had have all been men [2], and their (mostly silent) assistants have all been women – with PhDs. This means that the cohort is getting a narrower experience than if there was a better gender balance. Although each of our male lecturers is individually brilliant and unique, their worldview, assumptions and biases are powerfully shaped by their gender – the same is true for all of us. So the faculty is limited in this respect by the lack of diversity, and we, the students, suffer – albeit at a very high level! I’m not satisfied with an excellent experience – and neither should Cambridge be. Diversifying the gene pool amongst the lecturers (and the support staff, the administrators, the student body, etc.) will elevate the quality of the experience for everyone.

Actively pursuing diversity gives us a far greater chance of actually achieving the meritocratic societies, companies, business schools we all like to believe we operate in. It will help counteract the unconscious bias that leads each of us to make decisions about people based not on the rational assessment of their skills (merit), but on things like attractiveness, gender, familiarity of accent, or the way they walk.

This is as much a challenge for me as a small employer as it is for a global business school. And it is another thing that connects me  – the outsider charity guy – to my business minded cohort many of whom who are passionate about these issues and working for organisations who understand the huge value to be derived by increasing the diversity within their workforce. We are driven to counteract our own natural biases not because it is the right thing to do, but because, selfishly, we want to live in a better, more meritocratic, more awesome world – with higher NPVs all round!

A summary of recent data on women in academia.

2014/15 data on gender balance in UK universities.

[1] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/letters/promoting-gender-balance/2011428.article

[2] Correct at the time of writing. In February we received our first lecture from a female professor.

Robert Adediran is Executive Director at the charity London Music Masters, and a recipient of the Sainsbury Bursary available to EMBA and MBA candidates from the charity sector.

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