The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Building diverse and inclusive doctoral ecosystems

building diverse and inclusive doctoral ecosystems - line drawing representing icon people

Doctoral candidates may be some of the most vulnerable students in business schools. They can be at the mercy of supervisory relationships, isolated, and anxious about completion deadlines, finances, and their next career steps.

On the one hand, doctoral students are the lifeblood for the academic faculty talent pipeline. In countries like Sweden, doctoral students are salaried employees who work on an equal basis with other staff. On the other hand, in business schools there are large numbers of undergraduates and more profitable sources of tuition fee income. Doctoral education can seem like a Cinderella activity – marginalised and overlooked. Moreover, the cost-of-living crisis means that minimum stipends need to be raised for PhD candidates to cope with rising inflation as we have seen at the University of Chicago.

In this challenging context, how are doctoral ecosystems supporting the diversity, inclusion, and well-being of doctoral students? Bogers and his colleagues (2019: 2) define a successful ecosystem as ‘an interdependent network of self-interested actors jointly creating value’ in ways that no single actor could do. What networks, support systems, and interdependencies can enable doctoral students in business school ecosystems to feel a sense of belonging and flourish?

An interesting relatively recent development is the creation of dedicated chief diversity officers (CDOs) in business schools. For instance, the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) has employed a full-time Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager since 2015. An inaugural Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer was appointed at Harvard Business School in 2021. Wharton announced the appointment of an inaugural chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer in 2022. The creation of CDO roles indicates the need to help doctoral students’ mental health and feelings of inclusion in business school ecosystems.

In this article, we summarize the learnings of the closing keynote of the 2022 EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference. We first define key terms and provide an overview of inclusive initiatives in higher education generally and business schools in particular. We then explain a norm critical approach to understanding the predicaments of doctoral students. Finally, we offer practical tips to operationalise this framework.

DEIB/EDI – Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging/Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Ethics, Responsibility and Sustainability (ERS) considerations related to inclusion, diversity, and representativeness are clearly important in EFMD programme accreditation standards and criteria. For example, in terms of programme access and admissions criteria to ensure diversity in students’ profiles and in topics covered in courses.

building diverse and inclusive doctoral ecosystems

Vernā Myers commented that ‘diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.’ Importantly, ‘equity’ is about being on the party planning committee. It is about being able to choose the music for the party. Moreover, ‘belonging’ is feeling free to dance how you want. To draw on another analogy, if equality is about everyone owning a pair of shoes, diversity is about everyone wearing a different shoe type, equity is about everyone getting a pair of shoes that fit. Furthermore, acceptance is understanding that we all wear different kinds of shoes. Finally, belonging is wearing whatever shoes you want without fear of judgement.

In the context of business schools, we assume this approach means that candidates for doctoral programmes must be sourced from diverse socio-economic, ethnic groups and backgrounds. However, being invited to embark on doctoral studies suggests that under-represented students are involved only on the terms which the person issuing the invitation determines. This means that a minority student on a doctoral programme must comply with established social norms and expectations. For doctoral students to feel that they really belong, they must be empowered to create relationships and common goals which represent their own cultures and aspirations.

Gender equality plans and Athena SWAN

There are several inspiring initiatives that business schools can draw on to address UN sustainable development goals such as reduced inequalities and quality education in relation to doctoral programmes. The Gender Equality Plan (GEP) eligibility criterion in Horizon Europe means that universities from EU Member States and associated countries wishing to participate in the Horizon Europe funding programme for research and innovation must have a GEP in place. The Athena SWAN Charter is a framework used globally to support and transform gender equality within higher education and research. It is a structured evaluation methodology used at university and business school levels to change their policies and practices to increase gender equality. One of Athena SWAN’s 10 key principles is to commit to removing the obstacles faced by women, in particular at major points in their career development and progression such as during the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career.

From what we have observed in business schools, it is not just a matter of celebrating women doctoral students and their supervisors on International Women’s Day annually. DEIB must be embedded in systems and daily practices to ensure inclusive business school cultures and doctoral programmes. DEIB is business critical to develop staff and students and to address the precarity and inequalities we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anecdotally, we suspect that business school doctoral programmes reflect disparities seen in the FT global MBA rankings where only 31% of MBA advisory board members are women and women MBA graduates lag behind men in salary and career progression.

Work in progress

So, where do we look for positive examples? Nordic nations are generally viewed as world-leading on gender equality. Nevertheless, Sweden has decided to allocate permanent funding for county administrative boards in order to combat men’s violence against women at regional and local levels. Sweden has enacted laws to protect women from discrimination, harassment, and online violence to implement the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Harassment and gender-based violence and multiple forms of discrimination are a concern. In March 2022, a Horizon 2020 Certification-Award Systems to Promote Gender Equality in Research (CASPER) project recommended four scenarios to be considered. The EU Horizon 2020 project which finishes in 2024 entitled Transparent and Resilient Gender Equality Through Integrated Monitoring Planning and Implementation (TARGETED MPI) is tackling gender inequality in business and management schools by fostering gender equality in research/academic careers, ensuring gender balance in decision-making processes and bodies, and integrating the gender dimension in research and innovation content. Athens University of Economics and Business, Stockholm School of Economics, Lancaster University, the American University of Beirut and Vrije Universiteit Brussel are research partners in this project, evaluating GEP evaluating methodologies.

Norm critical approaches

We suggest that one way to prevent inequalities for healthy business school doctoral systems is to adopt norm critical approaches. Norm criticism is both a tool for analysing and understanding norms (e.g., of whiteness, heteronormativity, patriarchy) and power structures as well as for challenging and dismantling norms, i.e., unwritten, unspoken rules. Norm critical perspectives raise awareness of privileges, power imbalances, and the exclusion that some norms create. They are also a way to challenge power structures and to tackle marginalisation of groups in society and organisations.

On business school doctoral programmes, norm critical approaches can be used to create safer spaces in order to address power imbalances, misconceptions, and suppression which norms create. These approaches can help to tackle EDI as a systemic issue. This is essential to create safer spaces where the power imbalances, misconceptions, and suppression that norms create can be tackled as a systemic and not a personal issue. Intersectionality is about how the different strands of social identity interrelate. Multiple discrimination refers to a person who is a member of multiple vulnerable groups and how they might be discriminated against because of multiple characteristics. Focus groups which we have conducted with business school doctoral students have indicated that their self-esteem can be severely dented by rude behaviours and bullying in research meetings which are felt like personal attacks rather than lively intellectual debates. Critical thinking expected from doctoral students should not equate to incivility as we grapple with culture wars.

Practical actions

Business school accreditation criteria underpinned by the UN’s sustainable development goals of gender equality and reduced inequalities must be underpinned by practical actions. We suggest the following as practical everyday guidelines:

  1. Mind your choice of words and your behaviour – be aware of how they may be (mis)interpreted by others. But do dare to make and admit mistakes.
  2. Set a positive example and clearly show that you do not tolerate discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment or bullying of any kind.
  3. Map your physical and online environments to ensure they are accessible from physical and neurodiversity perspectives and not reinforcing stereotypes and/or exclusive norms.
  4. Know the law and your organisation’s policies. Ensure that the policies include clear information on how to report wrong-doing and microaggressions, as well as how to change doctoral supervisors if necessary.


If you see all-male panels being organised, business school brochures presenting images of active men and passive women, and doctoral/research seminars where individuals rather than ideas are being attacked, call out the various types of belligerent, benevolent, ambivalent, and oblivious sexism in business schools which Yarrow and Emily have identified recently in Gender, Work & Organization. Remember that if you are reading this you have knowledge, power, privilege, and that you can make a difference! You are already at the party. You can show genuine respect by inviting, involving, and delegating power to under-represented doctoral programme students and faculty members in business schools. In this way, with others you will be able to shape business and management ecosystems where networks of relations between members with interdependent goals add value for all.

building diverse and inclusive doctoral ecosystems

See more articles from Vol.17 Issue 2 – Towards healthy doctoral systems.

Athena Swan (2022). Athena Swan charter and principles, https://www.

Bogers, M., J. Sims and J. West (2019) What is an ecosystem? Incorporating 25 years of ecosystem Research. Academy of Management Proceedings.

Myers, V.A. (2012). Moving diversity forward: How to go from well-meaning to well-doing. Chicago, IL: American Bar Association.

Yarrow, E. and J. Davies (2022). A typology of sexism in contemporary business schools: Belligerent, benevolent, ambivalent, and oblivious sexism. Gender, Work & Organization, gwao.12914

Professor Julie Davies is Director of the MBA Health programme at University College London.

Karol Vieker is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager, Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden.

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