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White men are awakening to systemic racism. Now is their moment to act

In recent months, white males in the workplace have been awakening to realities of racism and expressing a desire to step forward as allies. And right now is the moment to engage them and set expectations for action.

White men are awakening to systemic racism. Now is their moment to act
[Source Photo: iStock]
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The current global crisis has exacerbated inequities that have existed for far too long. Across the country, we’ve heard a call to action that cannot be ignored.

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Customers, employees, and shareholders are demanding an end to systemic bias that is built into the fabric of our institutions—including the workplace. Companies that fail to respond with meaningful commitment to change face reputational and competitive risks. As a result, this is a rare moment when company leaders can step back, evaluate, and reimagine corporate culture for the benefit of all.

For many years corporate leaders have called on diversity & inclusion practitioners to help fix the ever-present issue of representation. However, exhaustive resources have been put toward workplace initiatives that failed to sufficiently acknowledge the entrenched bias and systemic racism that often underpin company culture and undermine pursuit of full inclusion.

In recent months, white men have been awakening to realities of racism and expressing a desire to step forward as allies. Now is the critical moment to engage them and set expectations for action.

Few studies exist on white male concept of belonging and attitudes toward diversity and inclusion in the workplace. For this reason, my organization, the Center for Talent Innovation, recently conducted a national survey to explore the topic. Our study focused on “majority men” in the professional workforce, which we defined as cisgender straight men who share the same race and ethnicity as most people around them at work (not surprising, 95% of these men are white). We asked their unvarnished views on the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

On the surface, the data seems hopeful: 42% of the men in our sample, including 62% of executive and C-suite leaders, say diversity and inclusion is “very” or “extremely” important to them at work. This category of “true believers,” as we call them, say they aren’t threatened or frightened or angry about the push for diverse representation. They’re working to educate themselves and build bridges across differences. These respondents are aware of their relative privilege and are on a journey toward recognizing and understanding their own biases. We also found that a large group (32%) of these majority men see diversity and inclusion as “somewhat” important. And only 10% of our survey sample staunchly oppose diversity and inclusion at work.

So, why haven’t companies made greater progress?  So, if data reveals most of these men hold positive or neutral feelings toward diversity and inclusion, and nearly two-thirds of executive level majority male leaders are passionate supporters, why do so many women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ professionals face persistent barriers to success in the workplace?

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Even among the “true believers,” only 56% say they have been involved in diversity and inclusion efforts at their companies.

The answer is this: Most majority men don’t back up their goodwill with action. Why should they if they don’t have to? Even among the “true believers,” only 56% say they have been involved in diversity and inclusion efforts at their companies.

This disconnect between what majority men in power say they believe about equity and what they are willing to do is significant. In my own experience as a Black, female-bodied, LGBTQ executive on Wall Street, I saw and felt the effects of this toxic disconnect. Like so many, I faced microaggressions on a regular basis. Once on the trading desk, I was randomly asked one morning at 8 a.m. if I was “eating fried chicken.” Many years and promotions later, I found my corporate title printed incorrectly, and changed to a lower level like those of junior cisgender, white male’s, in client pitch books.

After many of these experiences, I realized how much the industry is plagued by artificial hierarchies, and that these were not accidents, but examples of ego, self-preservation, and fear standing in the way of decency. This isn’t to say, I haven’t witnessed more positive behavior.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many positive, collegial relationships with majority men who would never tolerate any overtly racist or sexist treatment of me. For many of these men, I was either their direct manager or, in their eyes, “one of them.”

Nevertheless, accountability and measurement become somehow elusive when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. In our survey, the overwhelming reason men cited for not getting involved in their company’s diversity and inclusion efforts was “a lack of time.” This is a very telling detail because in corporate speak, “there’s no time” basically translates into “this is not important.”

Yet all day, every day, leaders manage to solve complex business problems, set goals, adapt to new regulation, and drive innovation within organizations. Despite all challenges, year-after-year, leaders find a way to push businesses and teams forward to achieve great things.

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When held accountable, majority men indeed perform. Expectations should be no different when holding leaders accountable for progress toward diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. The problem is that championing diversity and inclusion is still seen as a sideline, rather than a path to leadership. White men can opt in or out, which is precisely why they often take a pass. This has to change.

We now have an opportunity. If we are to disrupt bias and “business as usual” in the workplace, then diversity and inclusion must be woven into corporate culture, tied to performance evaluations, promotion, and compensation, including end-of-year bonuses. It must be measured like any other business goal.

As leaders, white men need to be encouraged to stand up and speak out against bad behavior that goes against company values. One way is to offer training and direct scripts on how to speak up against bias in the moment and create a safe space of trust and partnership for learning.

We will see allies—whether or not they are cisgender, white males—go to work when human-centered leadership becomes a requirement, and inclusion is written into everyone’s job description and every company culture. It is only then will progress toward the equitable workplace everyone deserves.


Lanaya Irvin is president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit think tank that helps leaders design workplaces where every person belongs. Her background includes more than 10 years on Wall Street, where she worked in global finance. Lanaya is a longtime leader in advocating for LGBTQ rights and equity in the workplace.