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Canada's Business Schools Fight Back For LGBTQ MBAs—From Rotman To McGill’s Desautels

Despite the macho mythology around MBA students, new business school initiatives are backing LGBTQ MBAs

By  Nick Storring

Fri Apr 6 2018

Societal attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ population have clearly shifted in recent years.

While we're still a long way from rendering homophobia extinct, same-sex marriage has been ruled legal across the US, Canada, and parts of the UK, Northern Ireland excluded.

A number of transgender figures—notably author and activist Janet Mock, actress Laverne Cox, and television personality and retired athlete Caitlyn Jenner—have risen to celebrity status as well.

Although MBA programs tend to skew cisgender and heterosexual, there's a growing number of initiatives to ensure queer and trans students are given adequate support. Chief among them is Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA), a leading organization that host conferences, summits, provides resources, and offers fellowships to fund the training of LGBTQ-identified students.

Saygin Yag is one of this year's ROMBA fellows at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, Canada's lone ROMBA-affiliate school. In addition to benefitting from the fellowship, Saygin is active himself on campus, as current president of Rotman's LGBTQ+ club, the Letters. 

The club does a number of things to ameliorate LGBTQ life at Rotman including mentorship, education, and advocacy: “We have events about sexual orientation and gender diversity,” says Saygin.

“We host LGBTQ workshops, and an 'ask me anything' panel, which is basically a panel of four LGBTQs moderated by LGBTQ faculty or staff. People submit their questions anonymously.”

They've also ensured that the school's climate of inclusion extends as far back as the admission process. “When I was applying, they asked “Do you identify as LGBTQ?” but that's so sketchy, especially for someone coming from abroad,” remarks Saygin, who originally came from Turkey.

“I remember saying “no” because it's like, 'Why are you asking?' Last year we told Rotman to include a blurb indicating that Rotman is dedicated to diversity and inclusion. We want to make sure this is a safe space.” 

Among the 700 students that make up Rotman’s two full-time cohorts, and one part-time group, Saygin says that there are roughly 25 students that identify as LGBTQ. Within that small group, he adds that it’s primarily international students that are the most active. “A pattern that we see is that International students are much more open about this because they were usually not out, like myself, in their home country.”

An aspect that hampers LGBTQ presence in MBA programs for him is the air of professionalism, which has traditionally inhibited people from coming out in the workplace. The “notoriously non-inclusive” environment of the finance industry, which also tends to exclude women, is an additional source of pressure.

Nonetheless, he's optimistic that the club's openness is making a dent in prejudice. Certainly Rotman's administration noticed the impact of their efforts—they awarded the "Letters Moving The Needle" Award for their contributions.

MBA candidate Olivier Forgues spearheads a similar club—OUTlook on Business—at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management. According to him, OUTlook is committed to “bridging the gap between the professional world and academia through its strategic existence within the management faculty. LGBT+ individuals face their own complex set of issues at work, and OUTlook aims to bolster positive attitudes in the business world by working with its future leaders—current and potential MBA candidates.”

In spite of low queer and transgender enrollment, Olivier asserts that MBA programs are actually conducive to diversity of gender and sexuality: “MBA programs attract tremendously different mindsets and attitudes—every MBA will, in one way or another, be invited to share, discuss, and normalize their own experience, in school or in the workplace. In that sense MBA programs are uniquely well-suited to LGBTQ+ individuals: where everyone is different, no one is any worse off.” 

Across the US too, a number of schools are either partnered with ROMBA or have LGBTQ+ clubs, some of which have large memberships.

According to a 2015 ROMBA study, Wharton's club boasts 830 members (including queer allies), with Cluster Q at Columbia with 664 members. Yet, even smaller institutions such as UMass Amherst's Isenberg School are aiming to foster queer and trans-positive environments. The campus itself offers the stalwart resource hub Stonewall Centre, while Michael Famighette, director of the full-time MBA program notes:

A typical incoming class at Isenberg has 45 or fewer students. In such a small program, diversity is imperative. It’s our hope that the intentionally small and supportive environment makes people feel comfortable and respected. The faculty, staff, and other students buy-in to the idea that every opinion, life experience, and perspective matters both inside and outside the classroom.”