Sankalp Chaturvedi

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Tackling discrimination in business and society requires us to change the ways we deal with "difference" in education, from the day a child enters primary school to the day they complete their postgraduate degree 

Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) has become a hot topic in recent years, and rightly so. But will this much-needed attention be enough to create credible and lasting change when society has for so long marginalised those who don't fit the “normal” mould? The education system has a key role to play here, from primary school through to higher education, if we are to have any measurable impact on societal attitudes.  

The three primary challenges  

The first is to facilitate the shift from “equality” to “equity”. For opportunity to be truly equal, the individuals within a system may all require something slightly different, be that support tools, nuanced language, different teaching methods, or simply more time. Equality – offering everyone the same in order to “level the playing field” – is not the same. 

The second is to change the narrative around “normal” and “different”. What is normal anyway, and what constitutes difference? For the most part, “different” is down to subjective opinion. Perhaps the most important characteristic of being human is our individuality, so the first step is to abandon any preconception of what is “normal”. We need to do the same with “disability” – even “less able” has negative connotations, which we must abandon.  Perhaps we need to stop thinking “less ability” and start thinking “special ability”, if we are to become truly inclusive. 

The third challenge is to consciously start teaching inclusivity and countering embedded societal attitudes when children enter the education system, from primary school onwards. If we are to create the necessary and integral change in society, we must start here, at the beginning, by acknowledging and challenging the social constructs that perpetuate discrimination (often subliminally) and ensure our education system teaches core values that instil awareness, consideration and respect for others.  

Financial discrimination [...] doesn't even exist in legal terms

We must also recognise how far-reaching discrimination can be. We must not only think of the more obvious issues such as race, gender and sexual orientation, but also invisible ones such as dyslexia, neurodivergence and mental health. Inclusivity must encompass “respect for all” in its broadest sense. 

EDI in primary versus secondary education 

In the UK, primary education does a relatively good job of teaching young children to respect and value difference, and to recognise that diverse talents and perspectives make for a better world. While challenges still exist in identifying differences at an early stage, time is invested in consciously and structurally teaching small children these values, in nurturing them, in making families an integral part of school life and in “walking the talk”.  

As children move up to secondary school something seems to be lost.  

The emphasis on grades, the increased expectation of responsibility, and the challenges faced by those whose needs have not yet been recognised all create obstacles to inclusivity. It's not only about teaching respect for others, the education system must do much better at identifying difference in all its forms and find effective ways to ensure equity.  

In primary and secondary education, we can ensure the right values are embedded as part of learning, whereas in higher education it is more about reactive change management

Particular challenges arise from invisible difference – increasing mental health problems being the most notable – and financial discrimination, which doesn't even exist in legal terms. If a child coming to school hungry and unable to concentrate doesn't constitute discrimination, then I'm not sure what does. Too many children are square pegs struggling to fit in an increasingly rigid system of round holes and they are clear evidence the current system is not inclusive or equitable. Yet within this same system there are also educators and professionals showing us there is another way, with compassion and trauma-informed practice at its heart. We need more of this. 

Further and higher education 

Much work has been done in further and higher education to address EDI, perhaps in part driven by market forces: students are customers who can vote with their feet. But it's never enough, and there is a lot more to do. As our students enter the workplace, it's crucial they do so as adults who have learnt throughout their entire experience of education (including how they themselves have been treated) to have empathy for, and actively listen to, the perspectives and needs of others.  

In my role as the Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion of Imperial College Business School, one of my goals is to embed inclusivity systemically, and make fairness, dignity and respect central components of the School's identity. In primary and secondary education, we can ensure the right values are embedded as part of learning, whereas in higher education it is more about reactive change management. This requires a values-driven inclusivity framework and the processes to effect that change. Being EDI-responsible cannot rely on the moral responsibility of selected self-driven individuals – it needs systemic change focused on processes. 

To embrace change, proactively or reactively, we all will need to ACT, i.e.: 

  • Be aware of differences; 

  • Show consideration to others; and 

  • Translate that understanding into daily, conscious behaviours across all aspects of our lives.  

We are part of a global community, and our core values are what define us; they are what makes life meaningful and more colourful. But we will only be a truly global community if we actively counter the entrenched societal discrimination that still exists by teaching the next generation, from primary school onwards, how to live an inclusive life. It’s a challenge but a real possibility to turn the tide.  

Written by


Sankalp Chaturvedi

About Sankalp Chaturvedi

Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Leadership
Professor Chaturvedi is Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Leadership and Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at Imperial College Business School. He also leads the Gandhi Centre for Inclusive Innovation.

He holds a PhD from the NUS Business School, National University of Singapore, and previously completed a Master’s in Human Resource Development & Management from the Indian Institute of Technology.

Professor Chaturvedi’s research focusses on effective leadership, mindfulness, and collaboration mechanisms in teams, and he has published articles in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, Strategic Management Journal, Leadership Quarterly and Journal of Management, among others.

You can find the author's full profile, including publications, at their Imperial Profile

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