Graduation at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business was a joyous event for MBA graduates. But when, two days later, a scathing open letter written by former leaders of the Notre Dame Mendoza LGBTQ and Allies Club appeared on LinkedIn, the business school community was shaken.
In the letter, Eric Sweeney and Teja Nelluri outlined their experiences of discrimination at the university.* They had, they said, a responsibility to prospective MBAs to share just how uncomfortable they were.
Unfortunately, their experience isn’t unique. In a 2020 student survey, just 34% of male LGBQ students and 22% of female LGBQ students said they felt a sense of belonging at Notre Dame, compared with 59% of straight male and 51% of straight female classmates.
Across the business school community too, LGBTQ+ MBA students have shared their concerns and the ways they feel some business schools are letting them down.
LGBTQ+ MBAs: More support needed
The Notre Dame letter criticized the university’s failure to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity in its Notice of Non-Discrimination as well as the school’s decision to refuse the renaming of the LGBTQ and Allied Club to PRIDE@Mendoza, which was deemed too political, the letter claims.
A final blow to the club came when Mendoza terminated its partnership with Reaching Out MBA—a nonprofit that aims to develop LGBTQ+ business leaders. One of the organization’s key activities is providing ROMBA Fellowships to LGBTQ+ MBA students.
The letter claims the decision was made at university level, and no Mendoza student was offered a ROMBA fellowship.
The letter claims: According to an email we received from the Associate Dean of the MBA program, the university concluded: ‘Given our Catholic mission, we are unable to provide fellowships that specifically provide privileged access to our MBA program to LGBTQ candidates.’
Since the Notre Dame open letter was released, the university has established an official alumni community to bring LGBTQ+ graduates and allies together: the Alumni Rainbow Community of Nortre Dame (ARC ND). But the letter's co-author, Eric Sweeney, believes more must be done to support LGBTQ+ applicants and current students.
The factors brought to light in the letter created an atmosphere in which LGBTQ+ students like Eric felt unsupported, and left other students questioning whether they should be out at business school. But having to hide who you are in the classroom has negative implications, Eric believes.
“The school creates this amazing world, but [as an LGBTQ+ individual] you always feel like you’re not allowed to be a full member of it,” he reflects.
“If you are spending energy trying to hide or cover part of yourself, you are not spending that time productively.”
According to a study by the career platform Bright Network, this issue extends into the workplace. 25% of LGBT people are not out to their colleagues, and 62% of openly gay graduates return to the closet at work, the study reveals.
If individuals are unable to bring their whole selves to the boardroom or the classroom, they're less able to show what they are capable of. Schools must look at the ways they are supporting, encouraging, and helping students feel comfortable in their identity so that they can achieve their best.
Impact on LGBTQ+ students
Sammi Clute is an LGBTQ+ MBA from a Minnesota business school who feels there is work to be done when it comes to diversity and inclusion at business schools.
When she began her MBA in 2019, pursuing a career in investment banking, she was wary of the reputation some programs have for prioritizing the white, straight, male experience.
During her MBA, Sammi took steps to challenge this culture, by founding an inter-MBA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion council with a handful of MBAs from American business schools.
She is trying to establish this community to allow LGBTQ+ and other minority students to communicate about the issues they face, come together for solidarity, and to propose solutions to school administration.
As a queer MBA student, Sammi believes that social change can be propelled by consumers. Companies don’t exist in a vacuum, and pressure from both staff and customers can spark positive change.
Sammi reasoned that if the same pressure is applied to business schools by students and applicants, change could be encouraged the same way.
Students like Sammi feel it is vital to see the environment diversify and the culture of heteronormativity to change. Schools must not only attract LGBTQ+ students into the classroom, but equally work to prioritize their wellbeing and ensure they can safely be out.
When students can each bring their unique personal identity to the classroom, discussions include different perspectives, and so all students benefit.
Creating positive change
For business schools to ensure LGBTQ+ students are not only welcome but respected for their different perspectives, they must work closely with LGBTQ+ organizations on campus.
The PRIDE association at Harvard Business School, for instance, provides LGBTQ+ students with a community of individuals they can identify with and host events for days such as National Coming Out Day, World AIDS Day, and Transgender Day of Visibility.
The club also promotes an environment of inclusive leadership and supports its members to fly high in their careers through mentoring and networking.
At Wharton, meanwhile, 6% of the 2022 MBA class are LGBTQ+, and the school has a prominent and active LGBTQ+ group Out For Business. The organization provides a professional and social network, which is sponsored by top MBA employers like Bain, McKinsey and Company, and Accenture.
Communities like these provide a safe space to grow as an open and out individual in a business school environment, creating a culture of authenticity and inclusivity.
Similarly, by offering training to all MBA students in diversity, equality, and inclusion, with courses like the Fostering Inclusion and Diversity program at Yale School of Business, students will graduate from the program better equipped to work inclusively.
Partnerships with organizations like ROMBA are equally crucial if LGBTQ+ professionals are to be included in the business school classroom. So far, over 300 MBAs have benefitted from ROMBA Fellowships and the organization’s connection with 100 corporate partners.
Being LGBTQ+ gives students and professionals a unique perspective, and should never be a disadvantage—it is a lived experience that can create empathetic leaders.
Business schools must ensure they create space for LGBTQ+ students, or risk missing out on diverse talent and everything that brings to the classroom.
*Mendoza College of Business declined our request for comment.