Most leaders of big corporations outwardly support diversity and inclusion efforts. But in my work as a Diversity & Inclusion consultant, I frequently get a behind-the-scenes look at how leaders truly feel and a surprising number of people — from line managers to C-Suite executives — express notedly less enthusiastic opinions in private.
“It seems like I’m not wanted in the room when D&I conversations start happening,” one person told me. “It feels like I’m part of the problem,” another said in frustration. And a third, in a rare admission of a common sentiment said: “It seems like everyone is out to get the white guys.”
According to the White Men’s Leadership Study, a study of white men and diversity and inclusion, the single biggest challenge to engaging in D&I efforts — as noted by almost 70% of white men surveyed — is knowing whether they are “wanted.” This may sound like an unfounded sentiment to D&I practitioners who make great efforts to involve leaders in their initiatives, but rather than dismiss this reluctance it would be far better to understand how and why it happens. Understanding root causes will allow us to figure out how to make leaders into allies, not enemies.
Why Some Leaders Feel Defensive
Even innocuous comments that identify the existence of identity-based discrimination may land very differently with different people. For individuals who have experienced marginalization, these comments can feel empowering, giving voice to their experiences. Others may respond empathetically, even if they haven’t had the specific experience referenced. But for some people, especially those who have never faced marginalization for their identities, these comments can land the wrong way. Why?
One of the functions of privilege is rarely having to think about privileged identities as “identities.” In America, historical power inequities make it so women, people of color, religious minorities, disabled people, and LGBTQ+ people are constantly reminded of their differences while men, white people, able-bodied people, straight people, and cisgender people can go their entire lives without thinking actively about their masculinity, whiteness, abled bodies, heterosexuality, or cisgender status. For privileged leaders, seemingly innocuous workplace comments can be some of the first times they explicitly think about their race, gender, or sexuality. These leaders may hear mentions of a group they belong in, find those parts of their identities more salient than ever, and sensing critique, get defensive.
Take these examples. When a woman says, “A man catcalled me the other day at work,” a white man in the audience might sit up a little straighter, thinking consciously or subconsciously, I’m a man, and my group is being attacked! If someone asserts that, “White fragility makes hard conversations about race even harder,” a white person might think, I’m white and being characterized as “fragile” is offensive! Or when a queer person admits, “My teammates hurt me when they assume I’m straight like them,” their colleague might think, I’m straight, is that supposed to be my fault?
Sociologist Robin DiAngelo calls these sorts of defensive overreactions to race-based criticisms “White Fragility,” and argues that it stems from a lack of “racial stamina” due to white people’s insulation from genuine conversations about race. Put simply, they haven’t had a safe space to explore these topics and for many people, this is the first time they’ve thought carefully about their identity.
It’s clear we all, especially D&I practitioners, need to offer psychologically safe spaces for white people and privileged people to explore these conversations. Otherwise, we will continue to encounter defensiveness and won’t get the support we seek from these leaders. In my own work, I’ve found two practices that help: framing identity as insight and focusing on equity.
Framing Identity as Insight
D&I practitioners often frame identity as valuable, but only do so for marginalized identities. The rationale (which I agree with) is that uplifting people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, Jewish people, etc. is necessary to counter the marginalization they experience in society and it doesn’t make sense to uplift straight white men for whom society is built. But building a D&I initiative on this rationale contributes to feelings that straight white men don’t belong, a cost we can’t afford in companies where power lies in the hands of the privileged.
We can, however, reframe this rationale into a strengths-based approach: identity as insight.
Consider this statement: “White people have a powerful and partial understanding of how race works in society.” Statements like these name a privileged identity (white), attach constrained value to it (powerful and partial), and then situate it in a context that encourages future conversation (how race works in society). They are also easy to expand into larger conversations with questions like, “How do other racial groups understand how race works in society? How are their experiences different? Why?”
I used this framing recently when speaking as a guest lecturer to a group of leaders who had flown in from around the country for a Berkeley Haas colleague’s Equitable & Inclusive Leadership class.
I told them: “You’re all experts in how gender works in your workplace.” The women in the room nodded, but the men looked more dubious.
“I know a lot about how my workplace works,” one man commented. “What to do if you want a promotion, how to resolve problems, how decisions get made. But my wife is teaching me that things don’t work the same for her. She’s the expert in gender, not me.”
I reframed his first statement. “What you’re saying is that your wife knows a lot about how your workplace works for women and that you know a lot about how your workplace works for men.”
Focusing on Equality
Equality or “fairness” is one of the most powerful shared beliefs in our culture: that everyone should have a fair shot at life and be rewarded for what they have achieved.
When working with straight white male leaders, I often tell them, “I know you care about equality in your organization. And being a straight white man gives you enormous insight and expertise into how your organization works for other people like you. It’s your job as a leader to figure out what it’s like for other people and make sure everyone has a positive experience.” These three sentences help in several ways. First, they name the often unnamed identities of straight, white, and man without blame or shame. Second, they celebrate the value of these identities in the form of expertise while also being honest about the limits of such expertise. (A straight white man will not, for example, start off knowing what their organization is like for a bisexual indigenous woman.) And third, they explicitly tie the humility and curiosity necessary for successful D&I work to what it means to be a good leader.
In the 1970s, Elliot Aronson and his students developed and popularized a teaching technique called the “Jigsaw Classroom” that involved giving each student in a group part of a solution and requiring they collaborate to solve a problem. This is an interdependent act of shared learning, in which everyone brings valuable knowledge and no one person can come to an answer themselves and an apt analogy for how we can bring more privileged leaders into D&I efforts. By understanding our unique experiences as pieces of a complex puzzle, we can defuse defensiveness and find a way to together create a more equitable world.
By Lily Zheng
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