Diversity month

Learn about the latest developments and get insights into diversity, equity and inclusion.

February is diversity month. We have seized this opportunity to speak with Dr. Stephan Schmuck, Manager for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at ESCP Berlin campus and Academic Director of the acclaimed LGBT+ Leadership Programme, to get insights into the topic of DEI.

ESCP: Before we dive into the topic, can you tell us what diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is and why it is important for businesses?

Stephan Schmuck: Diversity, in an organizational context, refers to the workforce composition. This entails a range of different identities, from race and gender to age or ethnicity. Some of those differences are visible on the surface, such as age, ethnicity, or gender; others lie deeper and are less visible, such as sexual orientation, nationality, language abilities, social background, values, and so forth. What is important to remember is that there is no such thing as a "diverse person" - but organizations and groups are, even if individuals may belong to diverse communities. Diversity is also a management practice that has been with us since the 1960s, following the Civil Rights movement where equality and affirmative actions focused on the individual to enable representation of formerly underrepresented groups.

Today, the focus has shifted from the individual fairness case to the business case. Companies view diversity as a strategic choice that requires a focus on the organization as a whole to tap into the advantages of a diverse workforce. Think about an employee's talent, for example, that is not always immediately apparent and may be found in any diverse group, but requires and organization's efforts to shine. 

Equity and its related term equality is about access to opportunity. Equality seeks to ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities. Equity, however, is making sure everyone has the capability to access those same opportunities with freedom from bias and favouritism. Let me illustrate these points with an example from showbiz. 

In her 2015 Emmy acceptance speech for best actress, African American actor Viola Davis said "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there." Davis' win as a black woman in a predominantly white female showbiz category may signal both a change and increase in representations of diversity, but it also marks the continuing efforts it will take to change and overcome the barriers in such a culture if it is to bring out the best talent possible. Opportunity here is equality, but writing into existence roles that reflect true representation of what both talent and the world around us offers is equity. Davis' win as the first black woman in the best actress category also highlights the opportunity gap that exists between gender and race - white and black women. We tend to think of differences often only in one category, but as I noted earlier we bring all of ourselves to the job and these intersecting lines of differences - gender, race, sexual orientation, age, ability often unconsciously impact employee's opportunities. 

This brings me to the last term: inclusion. Inclusion is the sense of belonging in a company. The objective is to create a work environment in which all individuals in an organization are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal and equitable access to opportunities and resources and can contribute fully to an organization's success. Verna Myers' frequently cited quotation puts it succinctly: "Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance." She reminds us that inclusion is different from diversity and, like a dance, it requires all of us to keep the dance going, because inclusion is both a process and a result in which everyone can win. 


ESCP: In the past year, diversity, equity and inclusion has been widely discussed in the media, mostly due to new laws in the US, which have given this topic a new level of politicization. What are your thoughts on these recent developments?

Stephan Schmuck: Yes, the recent instrumentalisation of DEI for political ends both across the Atlantic and in Europe is indeed concerning. DEI is not alone in this and a similar trend is emerging with regard to ESGs as well. Nonetheless, while companies may adapt to regulatory requirements for compliance, I consider DEI to remain relevant for businesses. A company's mission is economic viability and the constant improvement of performance. For this reason, every individual or every team should be in a position to work towards achieving the best results. Discrimination because of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or physical abilities should not impede on these goals. That being said, it is in every organisation's best interest to lay the foundation for employees to be able to achieve their goals. Part of this is implementing a culture of fairness, equity and inclusion.


ESCP: With today's interconnectedness, it seems like the whole world is already in touch with one another. Why do you think diversity is still an important topic that should be pushed by organisations?

Stephan Schmuck: That's true and being connected has certainly helped individuals and organisations to bring knowledge of a diverse world closer. The management of diversity to benefit the strategic goals and performance of business yet remains challenging. Take for instance the U.S. for which we have data between 1971 and 2018 on what diversity in corporations looks like. Here it is mostly visible in the workforce, but decreases noticeably in management positions. There is no one explanation to account for this; instead there is a plethora of elements that can contribute to such an outcome, such as biases, power of informal networks, or mentoring that can help the rise of some over others. What is frequently observed, however, is that similarity to the dominant group can be key in advancing into those management positions. Most companies are not meritocracies, and it is often similarity that leads to the rise in rank, resulting in organisational teams that are less and less diverse. Meeting a diversity of business challenges, such a homogeneous group may take less successful decisions than a more diverse group. GroupThink can take over easily or conformity pressure in the group can suppress alternative viewpoints. In 2012 the Credit Suisse Research Institute investigated reasons as to why mixed teams are more successful. The outcome: participants deliver better results in heterogeneous groups because additional aspects are considered and discussed and participants simply prepare themselves better. Also, they are less concerned about embarrassing themselves in front of people who are different from themselves.


Would you like to dive deeper into the topic of DEI?

Learn about navigating LGBT+ Leadership in our free webinar Wednesday, 28 February 2024 | 12:30 PM (CET - GMT+1) Register