Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity: where are we now?

The Alberta School of Business launched its EDI Strategic Plan one year ago.

While equity and diversity play a role in fostering a successful and supportive workplace culture, it’s inclusivity that serves as the foundation for everything else, according to the assistant dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity at the Alberta School of Business.

“In the past, organizations that purported to value EDI focused first on diversity, wanting to get a diverse array of people in their doors,” said Michelle Inness, adding that the misstep was in thinking that by increasing diversity, inclusivity would happen on its own.

In fact, said Inness, the opposite is true.

“I feel like when you create a culture in a particular organization that adds value and includes everyone in an environment where they can meet their goals, diversity will follow.”

It’s been one year since the Alberta School of Business launched its EDI Strategic Plan. In the conversation that follows, we speak to Inness about the school’s commitment to EDI, current initiatives and plans for the future.

*Responses edited for clarity and brevity.

What are some of the challenges the school has faced since the launch of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) strategic plan?

Last year was a particularly unusual year. On top of the COVID-19 pandemic and learning and working almost entirely online, the university is restructuring and facing a lot of internal changes. In some ways, that actually created opportunity; we were already adapting very quickly to this idea that we would have to change how we operated. And so in some ways, it was an opportune time to start focusing on EDI and think about how we can do things differently on that front as well.

The first phase outlined in the strategic plan emphasized gathering evidence, listening and learning from the community. What was your methodology?

If we're going to make changes that matter, we have to know what changes are needed and where we're at as a school. First, I rolled out surveys to our students to get a sense of the school’s culture from their perspective as well as a general sense of how students were feeling about equity, diversity and inclusivity in the school. I also wanted to be able to compare groups of students: do different groups of students feel differently about the culture? For example, if you're a student who identifies as Caucasian, would you feel differently than somebody who identifies as a visible minority member?

I also wanted to talk to people — I spent quite a bit of time engaging in activities like focus groups with different students. I met with students from the 2SLGBTQ+ community, Indigenous students, international students and members of other visible minority groups to try and understand their experience, where they see gaps in what we do as a school and also what students feel we’re doing well. Additionally, I talked to faculty and staff within the school and people from across the university and the broader business community, all with different interests and connections.

What were some of those findings?

I honestly didn't know what I was going to find — was I going to find differences, or were everybody’s perceptions going to be the same? But students are having different experiences and noticing different things — not massive differences in most cases, but notable all the same — depending on their perspective and experiences within the school. They made me think about what we can be doing better. For example, in some cases, our international students said it was more challenging for them to feel a sense of really deep inclusion, especially in the beginning, and our domestic students weren't feeling the same way. I think there’s a real opportunity for us to push further and make our international students feel as at home as possible.

What are some of the other gaps highlighted by students?

In the data, and in conversations, female students have told me that even though they mostly feel good, they do experience sexism more than our male students do. That’s something shaping some of the activities I’m hoping we can engage in this year. It's the same thing with our students who identify as visible minorities; they tend to feel slightly less included. And what I've heard from several 2SLGBTQ+ students is that they wish we were having more discussions around gender and sexual diversity in the classroom.

Given that the business world is so incredibly diverse, dealing with issues around equity, diversity and inclusivity in our classrooms and extracurriculars become even more important. It really matters to our students in terms of their education, and their feelings of inclusion.

What are some ways the school can make a more inclusive community for these students?

In the past year, we started up a buddy program between our senior undergraduate students and our new international students (though it’s also available to domestic students who don’t have networks in Edmonton). The idea behind the program is to develop early connections with people who are already deeply entrenched in the Alberta School of Business, who are senior students who could speak to their own experience and be that friendly face in the beginning.

Along with two student leaders who took on the initiative, we also formed the Indigenous Business Students Association. Historically, we have not had many Indigenous students coming through our doors and even though there are a lot of reasons for that, we need to focus on our recruiting and our relationship-building with Indigenous communities. I spent a lot of time talking to people across the university who are Indigenous, or who are associated with different Indigenous initiatives or programs in the university to understand how we can do a better job of making ourselves a welcoming place for our Indigenous students. What really stood out to me in those conversations was the importance of establishing relationships and having a good support network within the school.

Through conversations with people throughout the school, we've been exploring expanding EDI across our curriculum. We’re also celebrating different EDI-relevant events with our students and our community, like the International Women’s Day panel discussion. As we move forward, the focus on EDI within the school is one that continues to evolve. As I look at it now, we have to continue to have conversations about how to include EDI in our curriculum, recruit diverse groups and Indigenous communities and bring more visibility to our 2SLGBTQ+ community within the school.

How is the Alberta School of Business encouraging intentional decisions in its commitment to EDI?

For me, it starts from understanding what our needs are. It’s simple to bring in an EDI-relevant activity, but if it has no meaning or doesn't fill a gap within the organization, then it does feel a bit performative. So doing things that actually have meaning and add value is important.

It's one thing to start an initiative that has meaning and intention — the continued investment in these initiatives will be very important. One thing that I'm quite encouraged about is that I have seen genuine support and outreach from our school community. I also feel the university community is trying to work towards creating good practices around EDI. As we grow in terms of our focus on EDI, having that university support and having people in place to help move these initiatives forward is going to be incredibly valuable.

What else would you like to share with our community?

I would remind all members of the school community, including our students, that should they have ideas, initiatives or issues that they want to bring forward, I love to hear about them. I find that everybody has a different perspective. Everybody's perspective is valuable, and I would love to have the opportunity to hear some of that wisdom.

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