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07 December 2010

White men and diversity

Bonjour from snow-dusted Brussels,

Okay.  Let me start by saying I admire and even love many white men.  Charles Dickens, Jack Kerouac, my father, my husband, and Richard Branson to name a few off the top of my head (yeah, you knew that last one was coming). 

But how often do we address white men in our diversity conversations (taken from a U.S. to global stage, this could be extrapolated to any large demographic group that has been historically advantaged)?  By its very definition, diversity is about all of us - not about everyone EXCEPT white males (or the historically advantaged demographic, whatever that might be in a given region).

I recently returned from a conference on diversity and engagement in D.C. where I saw friends and colleagues from the U.S. Firm.  Chris Brassell (pictured below), National Director in PwC’s U.S. Office of Diversity has shared with me the work he’s doing to include the perspective of white men in the diversity conversation.


Many white men in the U.S. have grown or remain quiet about diversity because it doesn’t seem to include them.  Their role often goes unexamined, which can impede the effectiveness of diversity & inclusion efforts.

Our firm in the US has acknowledged that actively bringing the unique perspective and experiences of white men into the conversation is critical to advancing meaningful cultural change; the firm has rolled out a learning program which features concrete strategies to listen to and educate white males about diversity issues.  “The best way to maintain an inclusive, high performing culture,” Chris explained to me, “is to include all perspectives and experiences - this includes exploring the unique and critical role that white men play in diversity and inclusion efforts.”

One study -- Catalyst's report Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives: What Change Agents Need to Know -- found that male diversity champions have a strong sense of fair play and are able to translate that belief into action. On the flip side, the study found that fear of making mistakes was a significant barrier to men's involvement in diversity efforts (for an interesting article about how this effects sponsorship between male bosses and female subordinates, see this recent article from the Financial Times). 

Everyone has implicit or unintentional filters and these are natural and normal in human beings.  The goal is not to ask people to not have filters but to make them aware of them.  These filters are malleable and can be modified through clear actions and behaviors.  Leveraging off the Catalyst report (and a follow-up one: Stacking the Deck for Success), the US Office of Diversity is addressing both minority and majority populations through a learning session which is part of a larger series of “candid conversations” about diversity. 

In the White Men and Diversity DVD, PwC US convened a panel of renowned external authors and experts to openly discuss their point of views on the complex issues surrounding the role white men play in diversity and inclusion efforts.  The discussion, moderated by Chris, centers around personal benefits to white men who get involved, and the consequences when they are not actively engaged.  PwC partners watch the video and then share their reactions and personal experiences in a facilitated discussion.  The course focuses on awareness, learning, teaming between white men and other groups, taking action, and skill-building opportunities for white men in diversity.


Diversity is about a better bottom line.  About creating an inclusive culture.  But as far as “white men” go, it’s equally about self-interest.  When I speak to our network leaders, from Mumbai to Moscow to Minneapolis, there is one thing I always hear – that agility is the most critical leadership skill now and in the foreseeable future.  So, while diversity is a laudable ethos and smart business, by engaging in diversity dialogue and action, white men can enhance their personal development and build critical leadership skills, like agility.  As one panelist in the DVD put it: “This will make me a more courageous leader, I can tolerate confusion, ambiguity get better at having tough conversations think more systemically – a lot of leadership skills are crucial for business, not just diversity – but diversity is a great place to hone these skills.”

I found the DVD itself compelling and provocative.  With sections such as “Whiteness means you never have to think about it” and “Getting comfortable being uncomfortable” the panelists don’t mince words, but rather tackle these issues with courage and integrity.  Of course these aren’t simple discussions. 

Chris spoke to me about the difficulty in managing the paradoxes of the facilitated discussions he holds after PwCers watch the DVD:   "One must be gender-blind AND gender-conscious; the golden rule is to treat everyone as you would like to be treated but the platinum rule is to treat everyone as they would like to be treated.”  As Julian Bond noted, "To be blind to gender is to be blind to the consequences of gender.”  Chris adds "When you treat people the same, you are really expecting others to be like you and refuse to accept the realities of their daily experiences which limits your ability to build trust."

What’s come out of the discussions primarily is a reminder that white males themselves aren’t a monolithic group – there’s much diversity in the “white male” category itself (ethnic, socioeconomic, schooling, experience, etc.) which shouldn’t get lost in the larger diversity issues as those elements make us who we are.  When diversity comes up, white males often feel like “the bad guys” – while history hasn’t been fair to certain groups, white males want to be held accountable for their individual actions today – and if they make a mistake, unintentionally say something insensitive, they want to be educated about that.

Below I’ve paraphrased some of my ‘aha’ moments from the external panelists who shared their experiences on the DVD:

I came from a lower-middle class and worked hard to get where I am in today…so I don’t like the world “privilege”…[it was a while before I realized that] there is a systemic advantage to being white, male, heterosexual…if you went to the right institution…we [white males] have been running with the wind at our backs – we have been running, but we’ve been pushed along – that’s an uncomfortable, unsettling thing to realize.

If 57% of college grads are women and [your organization] can’t adapt to retain women in the top ranks, you’re doomed.

My view of the world [as a white male] is incomplete.  Diversity brings the broader perspective.

This stuff is invisible to us.  We are the center and the center never knows itself – it’s the margins that know it. 

When I started feeling guilty [about privilege] it was a form of self-absorption, it became a way for me to get back to my comfort zone…even today after all the opportunities to evolve, I am tripping over this stuff every single day. 

We need to “come outside our tribe” by serving and socializing with groups that we’re not a part of – and it must be deliberate, purposeful, enjoyable.  For example, who do you go to lunch with every day?  Then you start learning…

I need to turn to other men and women to ask…what’s the stuff I don’t know and that I don’t know I don’t know?  Where are the blank spots on my map that impact how I interact and lead?

I need a support network, knowing that I’m going to make mistakes…then I can start to speak up and say what my reality is, see what others’ reality is…I need to stumble, fall, and have someone help me up, and say “nice try.”  I need someone to talk me through this – take an active role.  It’s a long haul.  At least if I’m making mistakes, I’m in learning mode. 

Indeed – as writer Samuel Beckett said: “Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

A huge thanks to Chris for sharing this great initiative with us in the blog. 

à bientôt,



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Very interesting post! You are definitely right - white men are often forgotten in diversity conversations.

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