I want people to speak up about injustices

Sendil Ethiraj discusses the aims of the LBS Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Advisory Board


In 30 seconds:

  • Professor Ethiraj has two big goals for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging policies at LBS
  • The first is getting people to feel that they have a voice and that their voice is heard
  • The second goal is getting people to speak up about injustices in a way that is less threatening, so they become active bystanders
  • The more comfortable people feel about speaking out, the less there will be a need for it

The saying goes, if you want something done, ask a busy person. This certainly applies to Professor Sendil Ethiraj. Since joining London Business School as a full professor in 2013, he has served as Faculty Adviser for the MBA/EMBA degree programmes for two years, Area Chair for Strategy and Entrepreneurship for three years, and PhD Coordinator for the Strategy and Entrepreneurship area for five years.

So, almost a year ago, when the Dean invited him to become Chair of the School’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Advisory Board (DIBAB), he was more than happy to oblige. “I felt that the question of how the system gets richer when you have more forms of diversity needed to be properly addressed,” he says. “And I rarely say no to service requests – I believe people have to pull their weight.”

Emphasising why diversity, inclusion and belonging (DIB) is essential in business, he adds: “Apart from the legal framework that prohibits discrimination, DIB is so important because businesses need to reflect the composition of their societies. When they fail to mirror them, they run the risk of losing the legitimacy to operate. There is also the lost economic potential from the exclusion of talented and productive employees.” 

The right skillset

Professor Ethiraj has his own experiences of exclusion; some subtle, others overt. He tells of two episodes while living in the US when he was refused service in diners. “When those incidents happened I just carried on. America can be pretty unsafe; people carry guns. You can’t risk being shot for being brown. Nothing so overt has happened to me in England. Maybe this is learned behaviour over the years, but I tend to look past these things and not dwell on them.

“Taking on the DIBAB role wasn’t motivated by these experiences. They’re not salient enough that they made me go on a crusade. I’m a researcher. I believe in data. The reason I took this role is I feel I have an above-average understanding of how LBS works. The point is: how do you implement these changes within an organisation? These are difficult issues with no clear, right answers and people can get very uncomfortable about them.

“I felt issues like this needed to be shepherded and consensus needed to be built to take policies forward. I felt I had the skillset to do that. I have brought people into the committee who know the research and can give me input. My job is, if we want to do ‘X’ within LBS, what are the facts that will get me there? That’s how I go about it.”

A rich intellectual life

Professor Ethiraj has always been able to see the bigger picture. Having lived in three continents, he adapts to change easily. “I was born in South India, in Hyderabad,” he says. “I lived all over the country, including the north. In 1998, I moved to the US to do my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and graduated in 2002. My first job was at the University of Michigan, as an Assistant Professor of Strategy.”

He has happy memories of living in Michigan, despite the long winters where two feet of snow was not uncommon. “It was definitely very, very cold there. We shared a border with Canada and the cold weather was due to being by the Great Lakes,” he recalls. “But I enjoyed living in a university town. There was a rich intellectual life. I had friends from psychology, computer science, from lots of different backgrounds.”

After 10 years in Michigan he moved to England when his wife, also an academic, was offered a job at London’s Imperial College. “I probably wouldn’t have left without the push, but I enjoy most places I go to. I like London – it’s very vibrant with a more diverse culture.”

Photograph: Rob Greig

“Our students are way ahead of us in this respect – they’re incredibly engaged. What is our end game? We want to look like our students”

Measuring diversity

Being part of this diverse culture was invaluable preparation for chairing DIBAB. Professor Ethiraj explains the differences between diversity, inclusion and belonging – three terms which are often bunched together: “Diversity is measurable. We are working on improving the diversity data the School collects to gain a better picture of the diversity of our community. But diversity is also about people’s life experiences, the unique cultures they’re from. Conservatively, we have 60 countries represented in the student population, and 38% women, on average, across our different degree programmes. Diversity is about this data – and we want to keep growing the diversity of our student pool.

“But these figures also need to be represented in our staff and the faculty. We’re proud that there are 38% women in our degree programmes, but we don’t yet have 38% women in the faculty. So how do you get there? We need to really push. The same with racial and ethnic diversity, as well as socioeconomic. The School’s employees need to mirror more closely what our students look like.”

Inclusion, he says, encompasses policy and culture, and is about making the environment inclusive: “You can be diverse without being inclusive. It’s not just about hiring more women and black faculty, for example. It’s about having policies that make people feel welcome for who they are and included for their individual backgrounds and experiences. There are many organisations which on paper look really diverse, but are not inclusive at all. Because you’ll talk to these people and they’ll say, ‘No, I’m not invited to things, I’m kept apart…’ So, what policies should we have to make sure everyone feels included?

“As part of this effort, a year ago three networks were set up in the staff community: PROUD, our LGBTQ+ network; PAC, our Parents and Carers network; and BEN, our Black Employee Network.”

Which brings us to the final element: belonging. This, says Professor Ethiraj, is how people feel, regardless of the policies in place. “You might be diverse, you might have the policies to create inclusion, but are they working? Do these people feel like they actually belong? Just extending an invitation to an event might not be enough. If people don’t feel they fit in or feel uncomfortable, whatever you’re doing isn’t working. Do women in the School feel a lesser sense of belonging than men? Do our black colleagues in the school feel a lesser sense of belonging than our white colleagues? We need to be sensitive about designing policies and implementing initiatives to help people feel like they belong.”

Professor Ethiraj says his committee members are passionate during DIBAB meetings, but conflicts are rare. The tone he sets is that everyone should feel free to speak up without being judged: “I’m careful to tell them that we’re not thinking about ourselves in this role; we’re debating which position is best for the School – otherwise there would be no room for common ground.”

Discomfort and debate

One of the policies that has changed under his stewardship is the Valuing Dignity Policy in the School, which guides harassment and bullying. “This policy repeatedly referred to employees and the employment contract – ie, to staff and faculty members,” he says. “When I had to deal with a student who was being bullied, she told me she had looked at this policy and felt that she ‘wasn’t there’ and it didn’t apply to her, so that policy had to be updated to make it more inclusive for our student community.”

He has also ushered in three new policies; for Trans Equality, the Menopause and Safe Reporting. All three were debated extensively. He reveals, “This was a challenge, getting people to feel comfortable when speaking up. They all have strong views on issues like trans equality, and when people come on with strong views, debate can be shut down very quickly. I said, very clearly, ‘There is going to be no judgement on your personal views. The goal here is: how can we be inclusive without making some people feel excluded?’ I encouraged people to debate what their discomfort was and created a policy from that. Was everyone 100% fine with it? Maybe not, but nobody felt like they weren’t heard.”

The Menopause policy also led to heightened debate. Some women on the board felt there were enough stereotypes around the issue already and that creating a policy would merely reinforce them. “We had a separate 90-minute meeting to air these issues and it turned into a very civil, reasoned debate,” says Professor Ethiraj. “Those who felt it was important to have a menopause policy convinced the other group. The benefit I walked away with was to create more awareness for line managers so they don’t resort to these stereotypes.”

AI trading and New York cabs

Away from DIBAB and his faculty role, Professor Ethiraj is engrossed in his own research projects. “First, I’m looking at the entry of AI into business,” he says. “Today, the human skill of trading stocks and shares is increasingly being done by machines. Humans are good at judgement, but very, very slow as the volume of information mounts. Machines are much faster at processing information, so I’m looking at how mutual fund managers are responding to machine-driven trading. This involves looking at very big data sets – I have data on every trade made by a big fund, for every quarter for the past 10 years, and there are 6,000 funds.

“My other project is looking at ride-sharing platforms in New York City. I managed to get the data on every ride Uber, Lyft and Yellow Cabs have made in New York City over a six-year period. We’re looking at how these platforms interact. The literature largely thinks each platform’s policies have an impact only on that platform, but then you have these phenomena where there might be drivers on both platforms. Documenting this causally, it turns out, is not so easy.”

Students show the way

The same applies to two of his biggest goals for DIBAB. The first is getting people to feel that they have a voice and that their voice is heard. He calls this the “slog element”, saying, “There’s only so much that policies can do. They tell people things, but they don’t really encourage changes in behaviour. The hope is, over a period of time, talking about issues, promoting the important stories, celebrating some of what is happening in pockets of the School, will set an example to everyone else. If they see things being celebrated, they’ll think, ‘Maybe I should do this, too.’

“My second goal is getting people to speak up about injustices in a way that is less threatening, so they become active bystanders. Even though we now have a mechanism that allows for anonymous reporting, the more comfortable people feel about speaking out, the less there will be a need for it. Our students are way ahead of us in this respect – they’re an incredibly engaged body. I’m hoping they’ll be the vanguard of pushing the institution closer to our ideal. They have great ideas, they’re really engaged, they push. They demand – and that’s as it should be. They should push. They deserve better.”

“So what is our end game? We want to look like our students.”

Sendil Ethiraj is Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School

Read our Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Annual Report here.


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