Making the most of differences: diversity in education

SHB student examines diversity management issues

Increasing globalization, demographic developments in an aging, yet shrinking society, and marked changes in commonly held values are external factors that can have a big impact on companies. Tognum AG, the largest subsidiary of the diesel engine provider MTU from Friedrichshafen, took a close look at these issues. As part of her bachelor studies at the School of Management and Technology (SCMT) at Steinbeis University Berlin (SHB), Yumiko Mathias researched ways in which diversity can be introduced to education and training programs as part of a strategic diversity management plan – and thus achieve the most heterogeneous staff structure possible, not only to counteract the effects of demographic change, but also to positively influence a company’s competitive edge.

The advantages that could arise from the diversity concept designed for Tognum include increased flexibility, increased staff satisfaction, and a stronger image as a company and employer. Mathias defined three aims at the start of her project. For the first aim, a survey of trainees and trainers should provide insights into how minorities feel working with members of a majority and whether minorities are treated differently in a training program. Mathias focused on two diversity issues: Gender (females in technical professions) and ethnicity (trainees and students from the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) with various immigrant backgrounds), since these demographic groups are considered minorities in apprenticeships. The second aim of the study was to identify potential for improvement, particularly with respect to diversity. Thirdly, the project hoped to raise awareness of diversity issues among training providers and engender a common understanding.

The survey method chosen by Mathias was to question trainees in focus groups. Training providers were then questioned using structured interviews. The most extensive part of the project was the evaluation of the results. Comparing the results obtained from both groups (trainees/trainers) proved very insightful, as did the reference to various findings from current research. The focus group for “females” clearly revealed that there were situations in which young women felt confronted with prejudices with respect to their choice of profession. They also reported occasional differential treatment in the form of preferential treatment or discrimination. The presumed reason for this treatment was stereotyping with respect to traditional gender roles. The presence of other women in a trainee group as well as the presence of females in technical specialist areas was seen as positive by group participants. The respondents also stated that they felt it was important to foster interest for technical issues within female target groups as early as possible – and not just when young women start thinking about a career.

The respondents also suggested a number of ideas and possible improvements, including some very simple ways to improve the situation with respect to applicants and training. Mathias added these ideas to a list of proposed actions. Other recommendations were derived from statements made in special workshops. For the most part, there was more demand for increasing awareness among training providers and to sensitize them to the impact of their behavior toward female trainees.

The focus groups of trainees and students with various immigrant backgrounds were also asked about prejudices and discriminatory treatment. One issue that was frequently pointed to was language. For the most part, insufficient German language skills were given as the main reason for difficulties on the training programs. On the other hand, the multilingual skills of trainees from immigrant backgrounds was also praised as a particularly valuable quality, which could definitely be beneficial to the company. The issue of religion was only mentioned by the training providers. This and other examples clearly showed that how people see themselves and how others see them often don’t match up. The issue of coming from an immigrant background was rarely emphasized by people themselves, but it was by others. Much more often, these participants saw themselves as part of German society. Mathias’ recommended actions included offering trainees more ways to improve their language skills and, if interested, to assign them to tasks where their multilingual capabilities and intercultural skills could be put to immediate use. A major issue with this focus was an increased awareness among training providers, as well as the importance not to overemphasize or ignore the topic.

Mathias’ conclusions make for interesting reading: all three of her aims were achieved. In addition, she noticed during the course of her project that for the female focus group, the issue of gender played a much bigger role in their technical training than immigrant backgrounds did for the other focus group. But the success of the project is also clearly reflected by the fact that the survey results have already been integrated into the training strategy of the company that commissioned the research. To gain sustainable awareness among training providers, the idea of inviting a guest speaker to talk about the issue is being considered. What’s more, a further survey has been planned for next year to monitor whether action points have already been implemented, and whether the issue can be addressed again in order to attain long-term effects.

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