Building an Ally Culture at Wharton

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Several weeks ago on a Wednesday at noon, I put on a black sweater and headed out to Koo Plaza to join a crowd of several hundred students who were gathered to protest the tragic reoccurrence of police killings of black citizens. Spontaneously organized the night before by the Wharton African-American MBA Association (AAMBAA) and Return on Equality (ROE), the protest was a silent one where the student organizers were joined by classmate and staff allies, showing solidarity by wearing black. This event also inspired students at other business schools to hold similar protests over the following few days.

A week later, to follow up on the protest, the student organizers hosted an open discussion in Huntsman Hall about the institutionalized racism that permeates many systems in the US, and to share their own stories of living under suspicion by law enforcement and fellow citizens. Most important, they encouraged the students, faculty and staff in the audience to ask questions – no matter how difficult — in an effort to educate others in our community and have a meaningful dialogue. Many people asked thought-provoking questions and the AAMBAA/ROE students responded openly and honestly. I was moved by the proactive leadership of AAMBA and ROE  who created this forum, as well as the allies who showed up to learn and support their classmates in the face of the terrible incidents that have been convulsing our country. This coming together was a perfect example of the inclusive community that we strive to create at Wharton.

As Vice Dean of Wharton’s MBA Program, I want to be sure that all of our students are treated respectfully and feel that they belong here. Given the great diversity of our students, however, this is a challenging proposition. Hailing from more than 70 countries, some with vastly different cultures and social norms, the first years represent a wide array of races, ethnicities, languages, gender identities, social classes, political views, religions, professional experience and personal narratives.  So when the 800 new students assemble on campus in early August, one of our first tasks is to try to break down barriers and find commonalities among the students in order to build connections between people who will be spending the next two years together as classmates and colleagues. The challenge is that our students (like the rest of us) have implicit biases and stereotypical ways of viewing people who do not look or sound like themselves. If Wharton is truly committed to training our students to be prepared to work in a global environment, then teaching them how to understand and collaborate with people from different backgrounds is essential.

Yet there is another aspect of our students’ lives that separates them in a profoundly different way than nationality or upbringing: the advantages that some students have been born into that have propelled them forward toward academic, professional and financial success. These privileges could result from any number of factors — such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, and/or physical appearance or ability. Acknowledging one’s privilege relative to others is difficult, because part of being privileged is that you don’t have to think about it. This explains why many men think that “gender” is about women, and many Caucasian people think that “race” is about people of color.

Why should Wharton encourage students to question if they have benefitted from institutions or systems that discriminate against those with less privilege?  

  • Understanding how you are privileged is the first step toward gaining a better perspective about one’s fellow students, as well as serving as the groundwork for building authentic relationships across differences.
  • There is growing evidence that business success is correlated with the diversity of a company’s executive leadership. (Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey & Company, January 2015). Managers need to level the playing field for members of under-represented groups so that they can ascend into management’s ranks.
  • Business leaders can improve society by helping to eliminate the inequity that privilege perpetuates. Enabling talented people to fully participate in the workplace has positive sum benefits for all.

If you agree that some of us have benefitted unfairly from these advantages, the best way to personally address this situation is to become an ally. Anne Bishop, in her oft-quoted book on the subject,* defined allies this way:

“Allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice and take responsibility for changing these patterns. Allies include men who work to end sexism, white people who work to end racism, heterosexual people who work to end heterosexism, able-bodied people who work to end ableism, and so on.”

At Wharton, an ally is a male student who speaks out when a female student has been interrupted repeatedly by another male student when she tries to make a comment in class, the white student who explains to a fellow white student why the Black Lives Matter movement is taking place, and the straight guy who dances in drag at Rainbow Pub in support of his gay classmates.

Wharton is not perfect, either as an institution or as a community, at making all feel included. But I’m heartened by the progress I’ve seen over the past few years that has been driven by the combination of strong student leadership  and administrative support. A number of new programs raise awareness of the obstacles to equal treatment for various members of the Wharton community. These are our attempts to generate real change in the culture of the MBA program, and more broadly address the social and political issues the world is grappling with today. In addition to the Black Lives Matter protest, here are some other initiatives:

  • The ROE collaborative has brought together a number of affinity groups whose joint impact exceeds the sum of their parts. ROE has been the main force behind Diversity Week and has supported a number of individual clubs to educate and enlighten the MBA community. With additional sponsorship from the Dean’s and Vice Dean’s Office, it has encouraged groups of clubs to jointly present workshops which help students work across lines of difference. It has also worked closely with my office to improve the Diversity Workshop.
  • The Storytellers Club has become a forum where students share personal tales about their families of origin, cultural heritage, challenges, and personal breakthroughs that preceded their arrival at Wharton.  The audience at this event listens – rapt and respectful – as they learn about very different paths that led their classmates to Wharton.
  • The force of hundreds of Wharton Women in Business members – and the allied male group, the 22s – indicates students’ commitment to new norms about women’s rights and empowerment here at school and in the workplace.
  • The administration has sponsored faculty-led seminars on unconscious bias and discussions of gender roles. We recruited diversity experts from Penn’s Graduate School of Education to help us create a more inclusive climate in the MBA program.

So what can individual students do to contribute to making Wharton MBA a more welcoming community?

  • Expand your circle of friends by inviting people who are different from you to join in your social or academic activities.
  • Join an affinity group or a club with a multicultural membership.
  • Attend an event hosted by an affinity group or gatherings such as Storytellers Club where people reflect on how their ethnic or cultural heritage has impacted their lives and careers.

Your two years at Wharton will provide one of the best opportunities of your life to experience people from different walks of life.  I challenge you to take advantage of this incredible window of opportunity to enrich your understanding and empathy, deepen your emotional intelligence, and expand your network of friends and colleagues.

*Footnote: Anne Bishop, On Becoming an Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression in People, Fernwood Publishing, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2001, Second Edition.

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