The Future of White Men and Diversity

Even though the reins of power remain firmly in the hands of white men, there is a growing belief amongst some of them that they don’t have a future in the workplace.

Some white men feel that women and ethnic groups get a better deal. Writer and presenter Jeremy Clarkson said in an interview in January 2019: “Anyone who has a scrotum, forget it… they [the BBC] just aren’t giving jobs to men at the moment.”

Professor Clara Wilkins from Wesleyan University in America says: “There’s this perception of a zero sum relationship — men and women are in competition. So if things are better for women, things get worse for men.”

Furthermore, the Lean In institute reported in 2019 that an increasing number of men are nervous about spending time with subordinate women. In the United States, 60% of male managers are uncomfortable participating in common workplace activities such as mentoring, working one-to-one, and socializing. This drops to 40% in the United Kingdom, but even there the figure has grown by a third, year on year. 

As Lean In’s founder Sheryl Sandberg asks: Who are those senior men likely to sponsor and promote? The women that they’re afraid to be alone with or the men that they have got to know much better?

Getting Real

Diversity and inclusion doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game — it never did. On November 1, 1848, in Boston, Samuel Gregory founded the first college in the world to train women for the medical profession. He said at the time: “There are said to be 40,000 physicians in the United States. Twenty thousand of these ought to give place to this number of women.” Indeed, about 50% of physicians in the United States are now women, but that number is now 50% of more than 1 million doctors. In other words, 20,000 men did not have to give up their role.

One set of people getting a fair opportunity does not have to mean that another set of people loses their opportunities. 

Traditional Values Are Not Enough

Many workplaces, even in newer sectors, are built on traditionally masculine traits: The office norms are often authoritarian, status-driven and dominant. This patriarchal alpha environment is no good for all kinds of people, including many men. Traditional “pale, stale, male” company cultures remain a remarkably tough nut to crack.

If success means having to give unsustainable efforts to work at the expense of health and family, then the kind of people who succeed will be of one type only. Traditionally, that will be a workaholic with a full-time, stay- at-home partner who coordinates all aspects of their life away from work. And that type of person will continue to perpetuate the current system that’s become so toxic to many people of talent.

From Diversity Fatigue to Belonging

Even when a business has the best of intentions, some employees are put off by new D&I initiatives. The CEO has made a speech, training and away days are scheduled, yet many people simply roll their eyes because they know, deep down, nothing will really change.

“When a company pays lip service to diversity but the message doesn’t sink into the culture, the day-to-day experiences of individual employees may not change,” says Dnika Travis, vice president of research at Catalyst, a change-driving agency.

It’s often referred to as “Bake Sale Syndrome,” where because someone senior has voiced support for a cause there’s suddenly a flurry of activity. If it’s for a charity, someone will arrange a bake sale. Then once this has happened, everyone goes back to their old habits and behaviors, secure in the knowledge that they’ve “done something.”

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Many feel the same thing is going on at work in terms of diversity. If there’s a policy written, or you can tweet a picture of the panel you’ve just run, then there’s that box ticked. It doesn’t mean there’s necessarily been a change. 

What Needs to Happen?

Without the involvement of everyone in the workplace, diversity initiatives will not succeed. We need everyone to understand and implement strategies for Belonging. 

To do this, we need to understand why more men aren’t more engaged with D&I initiatives in organizations. At the extreme, some may be actively hostile, angry that they’re being treated as “the problem” and threatened by the changing cultural landscape. 

Others will be unmotivated to change: They may see diversity as a good thing in the abstract, but can’t immediately see what’s in it for them. Many will be motivated, open-minded, and supportive, but feel unsure about what to do. In short, they need help. 

Current diversity initiatives in companies today often put straight white men on the back foot to begin with. Perhaps they’ve referred to “the girls” and a woman takes offense, even if they’d refer to their men colleagues as “the boys,” too. There might be an invitation to unconscious-bias training. This immediately signals “You need this, because you are the problem that needs fixing.” Diversity will happen more quickly if those white men can see a clear pathway to becoming part of the solution.

If the men currently in power are brought on board, diversity initiatives will have more chance of actually succeeding. White men who feel excluded need to understand how they will benefit from more diverse cultures and how they can become champions of a new way of working. Everyone in the workplace needs to understand where those men are right now and the best ways to bring them on board, with compassion, understanding, and empathy to make sure diversity initiatives do not founder.

Adapted from Belonging: The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work with permission by Bloomsbury Business. (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK) Copyright © Kathryn Jacob, Sue Unerman and Mark Edwards, 2020.

Sue Unerman is co-author of the bestselling book, The Glass Wall. She is also chief transformation officer at MediaCom, the largest media agency in the United Kingdom.

Mark Edwards is a Sunday Times journalist and qualified mindfulness coach who trains businesses in diversity, inclusion and leadership.

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