GW All Access: Shaista Khilji of GSEHD

Dr. Khilji hopes to keep the spotlight on organizational diversity management and train the next generation of leaders to adopt a humanistic approach.

August 24, 2020

Shaista E. Khilji

By Tatyana Hopkins  

Shaista Khilji, a professor and director of the organizational leadership and learning program at the George Washington University, begins each semester with one question to her students: Is diversity management within organizations a legal issue, a moral issue, an ethical issue, a business issue, or a humanistic issue?

“Initially, their answers are always varied,” she said.

However, when it comes to moving the needle forward in organizational diversity, equity and inclusion, one of the critical concepts Dr. Khilji discusses in her classes is humanizing leadership.

Having launched an initiative that calls for humanistic principles such as dignity, compassion, and sustainability as the underpinning for organizations and leadership, Dr. Khilji will use this approach as the foundation for her two fall graduate-level courses—Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Organizations and International and Multicultural Issues in Organizations. 

“I teach diversity, equity, and inclusion as a humanistic issue,” she said. “We need to create inclusive environments and cultures because that is the right thing to do. We need to move beyond thinking in terms of profits and think about human well-being and dignity.”

In taking a legal view, organizations work to stay in compliance with regulations more than building cultures of inclusion. In adopting the business view, revenues or profits prevail. Dr. Khilji said, “On the other hand, a humanistic approach is a key to addressing the socio-economic inequities within organizations, and even societies.”

Dr. Khilji’s decade-long research is focused on the impact of globalization on societies and organizations, leadership, change, diversity, and inclusion.

She said students in the diversity, equity and inclusion course would explore diversity in terms of race and gender but also address why managing diversity is one of the biggest challenges facing many organizations.

“One of the critical questions that we address in this particular course is what diversity is and how it is different from inclusion,” Dr. Khilji said. “We also look at different approaches that organizations have used to manage diversity in organizations. Then we address the fundamental question of why diversity and inclusion efforts have failed and how we can develop more inclusive organizations.”

In addition to interviewing a diversity practitioner, the class will discuss what various organizations are doing through case studies. They will also keep journals reflecting on their expanding understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Often it is the case that students who take this class begin with a very narrow understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Dr. Khilji said. “As they proceed through the semester, we look at the difference between respect and tolerance, how and why we need to move away from tolerance and to build up ‘respect’ within organizations, and how we expand our understanding of diversity to inclusion and equity.”

Similarly, the multicultural course will explore why culture is essential to human interactions, and the cultural dilemmas many global teams face.

“In this course, I describe culture as an age-old concept; however, it wasn’t until the ’70s that the concept gained rock-star popularity in the organizational literature,” Dr. Khilji said. “We treat culture as an essential concept that is also complex. Throughout the semester, we begin to peel back its complexity to focus on how to perform and lead cultures effectively.”

Both courses will use a variety of ways to deliver course materials, including TED Talks, case studies, news/journal articles and book chapters.

Students in Dr. Khilji’s courses will also have the opportunity to participate in a monthly conversation series, entitled “Courageous Conversations.” As part of her Humanizing Initiative, these conversations provide a safe space for her students and alumni to talk about issues such as race and privilege.

“As an educator, I feel the most important thing I can do is teach my students to create psychologically safe spaces within their organizations,” she said. “I believe that we have failed to make progress on critical societal and organizational issues because we feel uncomfortable talking about racial issues, for example.”

Dr. Khilji has been at GW for 15 years, and she has designed the entire curriculum of the master’s program in organizational leadership and learning.

She said with the recent nationwide Black Lives Matter protests casting a spotlight on how organizational diversity management efforts have predominantly failed. She hopes her students can finally move the needle forward on organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Organizations have not done a good job creating inclusive environments,” Dr. Khilji said. “With renewed interest, leaders have now begun publicly talking about developing appropriate diversity, equity and inclusions practices. While many practitioners are very optimistic about this shift, at the same time, they wonder will the attention stay on diversity, equity and inclusion practices, or is it going to fade. Only time will tell.”