That's precisely the premise of Gender and Diversity in Management, a senior-level course offered by Purdue University's School of Technology.
"We can't change prejudices with just one class, but we can teach students to manage their biases," explains Janet Achor, associate professor of organizational leadership and supervision. "Lack of tolerance and insensitivity to these kinds of issues can cost you your job."
Gender and Diversity in Management is one of dozens of diversity-related courses offered at Purdue, but its applications for the workplace and the "no holds barred" approach of the instructor make it a popular elective. Achor opens each semester by leading students through a series of questions, the answers to which invariably result in both teacher and students admitting their own prejudices to each other.
"It's a pretty explosive exercise," Achor acknowledges. "But it's designed to get their attention, and the results are accurate and true. We are all prisoners of our past experiences."
Achor started teaching the course in 1986 in response to a need she saw among female students in the School of Technology, home of the Department of Organizational Leadership and Supervision.
"We were finding that young women in our field weren't equipped to deal with the realities of the workplace in terms of gender issues," Achor explains. "Since then the class has evolved into a seminar on diversity, which includes race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic class and education, as well as gender. I also work on issues such as age, language, culture, ethnicity and the concept of time."
The goal of the course is to increase knowledge and awareness, foster appropriate attitudes and assumptions, and eliminate stereotyping, all of which have been shown to improve employee morale, boost productivity and increase creativity in the workplace.
Achor uses a variety of media to spark discussion, ranging from textbooks to popular films to role-playing. She calls the format a potpourri of things designed to make students think, regardless of how narrow or broad their previous experiences may be.
"Most students come into the course believing in the concept of America as a 'melting-pot,' but I urge them to think of it more as a salad," Achor says. "Each ingredient is distinct and retains its own flavor regardless of how much the salad gets tossed."
Because of the nature of the subject matter and the seminar format of the course, Achor says it's important to balance the numbers of men and women in the two classes offered each semester.
"Having an equal number of men and women helps give some balance to the dialogue," Achor says. "We get into some sensitive issues, and it's important that students be comfortable in the discussions."
Though not required for students in the School of Technology, both sections are always filled within the first week of registration.
"It's a popular elective because students recognize the value of this kind of information," Achor says. "They realize that the world extends quite a distance beyond their own backyard."
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