Reflections on managing equality and diversity from some aspiring Deans and Directors

In 2018, I joined colleagues from other business schools on the Chartered Association of Business School’s Deans and Directors’ Development Programme (3DP). If you are not familiar with it, one of its aims is to help aspiring leaders to "understand the current and emerging challenges facing business schools and the implications for business school strategies". I would argue that some of the most immediate challenges we face today are how we diversify our leadership teams, address inequalities in the staff and student experience, support the career of academics from ethnic minorities and remove barriers to participation for all who come into contact with our schools.

The issues are of course not unique to business schools. The university sector is grappling with a number of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) concerns in terms of staff recruitment and retention (Everett 2019), ensuring our academic community reflects our diverse student body (Mountford-Zimdars, et al. 2017), closing the student attainment gaps for under-represented groups (Warren and Riley, 2019), and ensuring our curriculum is inclusive and accessible.

With these pressing issues in mind, I posed some questions to a few of my fellow 3DP participants. This exercise generated seven brief qualitative narratives from two male and five female participants, with an age range of 41 – 59. Two respondents identified as BAME/mixed and five as white, with participants working in seven different institutions across the country. Although these reflections are based on a small sample of one 3DP cohort with a degree of intersectionality, I’d be surprised if their concerns do not resonate with other aspiring leaders. To retain their anonymity, I have simply labelled responses with ‘M or F’ (their self-identified gender) and provided an age bracket. All seven participants have been quoted here, and I thank them for their candid and honest reflections.

A dominant theme to emerge was the dual question of “how can we equip aspiring managers confidently to deal with equality issues, whilst also ensuring those not represented at senior level are emerging as leaders?”. Increasingly as managers we must champion equality, but this comes with its own challenges. Several colleagues admitted they faced situations where EDI issues were used against them as managers, with one participant reflecting that, “I have had to make decisions that have unintentionally, but disproportionally affected some groups of staff. I struggle with how to rectify my commitment to championing under-represented staff alongside the structural change coming from the top – an equality analysis only goes so far” (F/40s). It seems this kind of situation was shared by others with the additional concern they were not supported by their senior managers:

“My experience has been a significant sense of exposure and insecurity when dealing with such matters and anger at being unable to respond to accusations made by these staff members. To be accused of racism or sexism, and to have no right to respond (indeed no voice at all), and little confidence in the university’s ability or willingness to protect me and my senior colleagues, was very unnerving indeed” (M/50s).

 A female participant echoed this concern (F/50s):

The EDI agenda is very complex and sometimes actions taken in good faith can have unforeseen consequences. Consulting, bringing people together and communicating can be helpful.  Understanding our unconscious bias is a starting point but progressing this agenda in a sustainable way is challenging and requires ongoing work by those at all levels of the institution.”

It is important future business school leaders feel confident tackling such issues, but more importantly are supported by their university’s senior leadership in dealing with such situations. The tightrope to be walked by managers is translating equality analysis and data into meaningful strategic change and positive action, whilst also simultaneously managing the performance of a diverse faculty. This concern was reflected in a further reflective comment:

For colleagues, particularly Heads, I know that these events were extremely distressing and destabilising. I may be wrong, but I think the unreasonable behaviours of such colleagues are diversity and inclusion issues because, on the one hand the university (and us as managers) are perhaps not doing enough for such staff in terms of cultural socialisation, or, on the other, perhaps greater thought and resources need to be directed at lowering performance pressures on staff” (M/50s)

As a consequence of such concerns, some participants felt that equality and diversity issues could be addressed more directly as part of a future leadership offering, although many felt more general conversations with fellow participants helped them frame challenges in terms of responsibility and leadership and in raising awareness to highlight, discuss and develop strategies to address EDI issues” (F/50s). What is clear is that real issues facing managers can be hard to address:

My work as a manager, or more properly as part of the senior team, occasionally became subject to staff claims about poor management behaviour during disputes. Put more bluntly, some staff who had behaved badly or were under-performing and were challenged by managers, used claims about discrimination to intimidate colleagues or managers in order to deflect or stall due process”. (M/50s)

Another core theme to emerge was concern over the lack of diversity in management teams and how aspiring leaders could address this pipeline issue to ensure more diverse leadership in our schools:

“Women are well represented at the top here but other forms of diversity less so. From my experience in the recruitment processes this is due to lack of applications rather than discrimination in the recruitment process. That is an intriguing puzzle as the staff body generally, both here and at my previous institution, is very diverse” (F/50s)

Another female participant recalls how 3DP helped address this issue:

The 3DP programme definitely gave me confidence both directly, and from meeting peers and forming a valuable network of like-minded colleagues. It is fantastic to know that there is now a broader range of colleagues/friends to call upon and who you recognise when attending HE / business school events. However, it remains so clear that senior management teams are not yet very diverse and do not reflect the student populations that we work with” (F/40s)

The structural and society barriers to female career progression in business schools are well documented (see McTiernan and Flynn, 2011), and were echoed by some participants who admitted, I have definitely faced sexism in my career: earlier in my career there was often a sense that there were cliques of colleagues and these cliques were very male dominated. Even recently sometimes one faces comments regarding appearance, not being the stereotypical Professor / senior manager at a university etc.” (F/40s). Other concerns expressed by female participants included Gender pay differential for staff doing the same role” and dealing with “board room banter”. Perhaps encouragingly, several found that meeting like-minded individuals at a similar point in their career at a programme such as 3DP helped share knowledge, develop confidence and adopt ways to call out and eventually tackle such situations.

Many respondents felt that networks like 3DP are key to empowering our leaders to disrupt and challenge the homogeneity of business school management. It is from this position that I have recently launched Women@KBS (King’s Business School) - a new network for female colleagues in response to concerns expressed by my female colleagues. However, concerns about disparity are not only about gender. Another 3DP participant is also looking to launch a staff network supporting LGBTQ+ colleagues in their business school in response to concerns and another is leading work at their institution on the Race Equality Charter. As I have said before, we all have a responsibility, but especially so when we are in positions of leadership.

Advice from some aspiring leaders

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenge, and perhaps individual leaders are right in thinking the road ahead is a long one before our leadership teams truly reflect our diverse student body. However, in the words of some of my fellow 3DP participants, we have an opportunity to:

  • “Create an environment where people feel comfortable to be open and keep listening” (F/40s).
  • Take on institutional roles, given our duty to ensure “everyone feels that they have ‘a voice’ and will be listened to, respected and that their concerns will be followed up” (F/40s).
  • There must be a requirement "for cross-institutional perspective to include academic and professional staff; the student voice - working closely with the students’ union; senior management commitment, regular monitoring of data and feedback to identify gaps, action plans to address gaps, and resources to enable EDI embed change” (F/50s).
  • “Being a reflective practitioner is key to dealing with these and many other issues. The more 3DP can help future leaders with this ongoing learning the better for all who work in business schools” (F/50s)

Advice from one participant summarised several colleagues’ comments particularly well by suggesting that we must always acknowledge our own privilege and position before we lead and manage others:

Try to be as good a person as possible, and understand how you make decisions and judgements. I am aware that generally speaking I am quite quick to judgement about people and their abilities and motives. This generally is an important heuristic for making daily life navigable and sometimes such a cast of mind is very useful to managers too, but it is also fraught with the potential to allow other heuristics, based on prejudices, to affect decision-making. I do my best to reflect and question my attitudes to others, and when an issue that needed addressing involved an individual where their gender, sexuality, ethnicity etc. was different to my own I was always careful to double-check where my judgement came from: was I being prejudice? On what exactly was I making my judgement?”


By Professor Sally Everett, King’s Business School, King’s College London 



Everett, S. (2019) Tackling inequality for BAME students and staff in business schools. accessed 22/06/19

McTiernan, S and Flynn, M., (2011) “Perfect storm” on the horizon for women business school deans?” Academy of Management Learning and Education, Vol.10(2), 323-339.

Mountford-Zimdars, A., Sanders, J., Moore, J., Sabri, D., Jones, S & Higham, L. (2017) What can universities do to support all their students to progress successfully throughout their time at university?, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 21:2-3, 101-110.

Warren, L. and Reilly, D. (2019) Addressing the attainment gap: business schools can lead the way by providing an inclusive approach to the student experience