In a collaborative venture between students enrolled in the MGMT 560 – Sustainable Business Strategies for Competitiveness course at Koç University and the Gender Equality Office (GEO), a comprehensive exploration unfolded through a meticulously executed benchmarking study. This initiative not only spotlighted the intricate intersection of diversity, inclusion, and sustainability within academic environments but also underscored the pivotal role of student engagement in shaping and implementing gender equality initiatives.
This unique project sprouted from the course’s dedication to endowing organizations with an expanded perspective regarding their role in generating sustainable solutions to environmental, societal, and economic predicaments while concurrently enhancing competitiveness. The involvement with the GEO epitomizes the practical application of academic knowledge to address real-world challenges, particularly those related to gender equality.

Acting as catalysts for students Aykhan Mirzoyev, Ayça Kahraman, Ishita Sinha, and Selin Wendt, the course and ensuing project reshaped their understanding of diversity, inclusion, and equality frameworks in real-world business settings. Aykhan highlighted the profound link between sustainability and diversity, recognizing the integral role of gender equality in shaping sustainable business practices. Reflecting on the project’s impact, Ishita emphasized its role in uncovering the reality of corporate environments regarding gender inclusivity. This insight underscored the need for meticulous planning and initiatives that empower all individuals, not just a select few.

“The project made me understand how carefully the plans and initiatives should be created so that they empower all and not a select few,” articulated Ishita.

Ayça acknowledged the project’s role in providing tangible demonstrations of corporations working towards a sustainable future while recognizing existing gaps in implementation on equality and inclusivity. “The project also made me understand the fact that we are still lacking in terms of implementations on these topics,” Ayça added.

The benchmarking study uncovered captivating discoveries about diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) programs in the business world. Aykhan discussed the diverse practices used by companies, particularly within the STEM sector, to foster gender equality. The surprising finding of the effectiveness of stretch assignments in promoting diversity was noted. Ishita underscored the importance of employee groups outside of core work, showcasing how such initiatives enhance bonds and support within companies. “This is very important to bring a bond and support within the companies. This showed us how employees can be happier and productive at work,” Ishita emphasized.

Ayça expressed surprise at the lack of equality and inclusivity data in various institutions, emphasizing the innovative and inclusive nature of startups. “It was a big surprise to figure out that not only research institutions or other organizations lack this but also top companies too. Startups on the other hand were one of the best organizations to look into, and their innovative and inclusive nature was exciting and encouraging,” Ayça shared.

‟Understanding how gender equality fits into this framework has become integral to my comprehension of sustainable business practices, ״ shared Aykhan.

The students articulated their commitment to applying the insights gained from the project in their future academic and professional pursuits. Aykhan plans to advocate for inclusive policies and cultural changes within organizations. Ishita aims to incorporate findings on empowering ways to bring employees together, recognizing the importance of inclusivity in leadership. “It is very important to know and be sensitive to having inclusivity as a leader and helps me immensely currently in my academic career as well,” Ishita shared.

Ayça aspires to utilize the tools and research findings to make colleagues more included and envisions participation in or initiation of initiatives for a more inclusive workplace.

‟I would like to be a part of an initiative or start an initiative in the future company that I’m working with to create a more inclusive and diverse workplace,” Ayça expressed.

The students strongly believe in the interconnectedness of diversity, equality, and inclusion with sustainability initiatives in modern organizational settings. Selin emphasized how DEI initiatives enhance the sense of community, contributing not only to social sustainability but also the future well-being of organizations. “I believe that strong DEI initiatives enhance the sense of community within a firm, which in turn increases happiness and decreases retention rates. Keeping the work environment stable enables shifting the focus on other sustainability initiatives,” Selin articulated.

The collaborative project brought forth both challenges and opportunities for the students. Aykhan acknowledged the complexities of implementing gender equality initiatives within the university framework but recognized the invaluable opportunities for personal and professional growth. Selin noted the challenges of maintaining focus on the main objective and combining different steps of the project, emphasizing skill development in targeted research and project management. “In my opinion, the most complex task was to keep focusing on the main objective and to not get lost in details. Additionally, combining the different steps of the project was a challenge,” Selin reflected.

The collaborative project prompted the students to rethink certain business practices and challenge their perceptions of inclusive workplaces. Aykhan and Ishita shared how the project influenced their understanding of the importance of inclusive practices in creating more people-focused and caring workplaces. Selin reflected on her initial surprise at the active pursuit of diversity and inclusion goals by many companies, contrasting it with the reality revealed by company data.

‟Before, I have never considered the importance of such practices. However, now I do as I realized that workplaces enforcing such practices are people-focused and care about the personal as well as professional development of each employee, ״ Selin concluded.

In essence, this collaboration between students and the GEO exemplifies the critical role of the student community in designing and implementing gender equality initiatives. Engaging with students not only enriches their academic experience but also contributes meaningfully to the goals of the Gender Equality Plan, fostering a more inclusive and diverse learning environment at Koç University.

Interview with the Professor: Guiding Gender Equality Progress and Inclusive Learning

In this continuation of our exploration into the transformative collaboration between Koç University students and the GEO, we now shift our focus to an insightful conversation with Dr. Melike Mermercioğlu. As the recipient of the 2023 Gender Inclusive Teaching Improvement Award, Melike has played a pivotal role in guiding students through the complexities of MGMT 560 – Sustainable Business Strategies for Competitiveness. Her dedication to fostering gender equality, diversity, and inclusion is not only reflected in her teaching but is also evident in the innovative projects undertaken by students.

Reflecting on the grant’s influence on her teaching approach and passion, Melike emphasized its inspirational impact on both her and her students. “The grant provided an opportunity to come up with updates to my curriculum with more case studies on gender and diversity and with more projects addressing inclusivity issues,” she noted.

Acknowledging that students appreciated the privilege of being part of a grant-awarded course, Melike’s commitment to gender equality in academia was evident.

As an educator integrating case studies on gender and diversity, Melike shared insights gained during the collaborative project. While Koç University excels in creating an inclusive space, evaluations of the global higher education ecosystem revealed significant issues regarding diversity and gender. She stressed the importance of continually strengthening the commitment to inclusivity, ensuring Koç University’s leading role in promoting equality and diversity within academia.

‟Having an inclusive classroom is about creating a nurturing environment that respects differences and treats everyone equally. Moreover, it is really rewarding to make sure that everyone feels included as the overall learning is much more improved when we have a diverse cohort, ״ Melike reflected.

Looking ahead, Melike discussed the potential impact of the collaborative project findings. She highlighted her participation in the Gender and Diversity Conference organized by the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) in March 2024, emphasizing the importance of such collaborative initiatives in shaping future programs and conferences at Koç University and beyond.

Melike concluded by sharing her philosophy on inclusivity in the classroom, emphasizing the rewards of ensuring everyone feels included for an improved overall learning experience. Her recent class, with a remarkably diverse group of students, exemplified deliberate efforts to create an inclusive environment, fostering innovative solutions through diverse perspectives.

In essence, Professor Melike’s insights provide a compelling narrative of her commitment to gender equality and inclusivity, showcasing how academic excellence and practical initiatives intersect at Koç University. Her ongoing contributions not only shape the learning experience for students but also contribute to the university’s broader commitment to fostering an inclusive and gender-sensitive academic environment.

In summary, the collaboration between Koç University students and the GEO unfolds as a significant exploration into the intersections of diversity, inclusion, and sustainability within academic settings. Originating from the MGMT 560 course’s dedication to endowing organizations with a broader perspective on sustainability and competitiveness, the initiative underscores the vital role of student engagement in shaping and implementing gender equality initiatives. As students Aykhan, Ayça, Ishita, and Selin share their transformative experiences, the project emerges as a testament to the practical application of academic knowledge in addressing real-world challenges related to gender equality. The commitment expressed by the students, coupled with the insightful interview with Professor Melike Mermercioğlu, emphasizes the critical role of the student community in designing and implementing gender equality initiatives, contributing meaningfully to the goals of the Gender Equality Plan at Koç University.