New Wharton Business Dean Says Lack Of Diversity Stems From A Lack Of Prioritizing

Jul 23, 2020
Originally published on July 24, 2020 9:44 am

One of the country's leading business schools — the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — has never had a woman or a person of color as its dean since it was founded nearly 140 years ago.

Until now.

Erika James was named as Wharton's 15th dean in February and officially started the job earlier this month.

The business world has been slow to reflect the gender and racial makeup of America today, but James says that's not due to a lack of ability to make it happen.

"I think if we can create social media platforms, if we can put people on the moon and if we can have self-driving cars, there's very little that we can't do," James said during an interview on All Things Considered. "So the fact that we have not yet created a more diverse work environment means that we simply haven't prioritized it."

In these excerpts from her interview, she discusses obstacles that women and people of color face in climbing the executive ladder and a future in which "inclusivity is just the order of the day."

You've done a lot of research into why the pipeline does not promote more women and people of color to executive leadership positions. Can you tell us about one of the obstacles that you personally have encountered that helped you understand these challenges first-hand?

Clearly there are structures in place that make it difficult for women and people of color to have exposure to opportunities within the organization. Folks of color generally have less access to mentors. Sponsoring relationships are important, but folks of color generally aren't sponsored in the same way.

What I personally have also found was the need for me to take responsibility for my own success and progress within an organization. And for me, what that has meant was I needed to imagine that I had everything it took to be successful in a job or an assignment that might have been a stretch assignment, and take the risk that we see oftentimes so many men take, even if they don't have all the right experiences. And I think oftentimes women are more reluctant to take on new roles unless all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed.

What's your message to incoming students at Wharton about their responsibilities to not just build successful companies but to build inclusive ones?

I don't know how much more of a message that we need to deliver, because as I see it, each generation is becoming more and more, not even cognizant or aware, but the expectation that they have is that inclusivity is just the order of the day. And they are looking and demanding of their current workforce or school to be inclusive. And that is happening from white students, from students of color, from women, from men. I just see they're a growing force, where the expectation is that the organization they enter will be diverse and inclusive.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Corporate America is struggling to look more like the rest of America, and that work starts even before potential employees enter the market. One of the most prestigious business schools in the country Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania has never had a woman or a person of color as its dean since the school was founded nearly 140 years ago - until now. Erika James was named as Wharton's 15th dean in February, and she officially started the job earlier this month.

Dean James, congratulations on the new post, and welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ERIKA JAMES: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Let me start with a simple question of why. Why do you think the business sector has been so slow to reflect the gender and racial makeup of the United States today?

JAMES: Well, there are many reasons. But I think top of the list is that we just simply have not prioritized it. I think if we can create social media platforms, if we can put people on the moon and if we can have self-driving cars, there's very little that we can't do. So the fact that we have not yet created a more diverse work environment means that we simply haven't prioritized it.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that corporate America gets this right now and appreciates the need for deep, profound change, or are companies just trying to do what they need to to get through this moment that everybody is talking about racial justice and equality?

JAMES: I think we see the gamut. I think that there may be companies who absolutely are looking to capitalize on what advantages come when you have diverse ideas and diverse perspectives. And then I think that there are companies for whom this has not been a particularly strong initiative. And every company's sort of at a different stage of evolution. Therefore, what will work for any of those companies, you have to take into consideration where they're starting from.

SHAPIRO: Do you want to name any names?

JAMES: Nope.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: I figured, but I thought it couldn't hurt to ask.

You've done a lot of research into why the pipeline does not promote more women and people of color to executive leadership positions. Can you tell us about one of the obstacles that you personally have encountered that helped you understand these challenges firsthand?

JAMES: So clearly, there are structures in place that make it difficult for women and people of color to have exposure to opportunities within the organization. Folks of color generally have less access to mentors. Sponsoring relationships are important, but folks of color generally aren't sponsored in the same way. What I personally have also found was the need for me to take responsibility for my own success and progress within an organization. For me, what that has meant was I needed to imagine that I had everything it took to be successful in a job or an assignment that might have been a stretch assignment and take the risk that we see oftentimes so many men take, even if they don't have all the right experiences. And I think oftentimes women are more reluctant to take on new roles unless all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed.

SHAPIRO: To paraphrase, it sounds like you're saying walk into the room with the confidence of a mediocre straight white man who believes he can do the job.

JAMES: I'm going to let you say that.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: So what's your message to incoming students at Wharton about their responsibilities to not just build successful companies but to build inclusive ones?

JAMES: I don't know how much more of a message that we need to deliver because, as I see it, each generation is becoming more and more - not even cognizant or aware but the expectation that they have is that inclusivity is just the order of the day. And they are looking and demanding of their current workforce or school to be inclusive. And that is happening from white students, from students of color, from women, from men. I just see there a growing force where the expectation is that the organization they enter will be diverse and inclusive.

SHAPIRO: Dean Erika James of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

JAMES: Thank you, Ari. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.