Are White Men Really Losing in the Diversity Game?

I recently gave a talk about employee engagement and organizational culture in Boston. Near the end of my presentation, the topic of gender parity came up for discussion and I shared my thoughts on Massachusetts’ new law (which goes into effect next year) prohibiting employers from asking about a job applicant’s salary history. This is the first statute of its kind in the country and other states are already in the process of passing similar laws. Personally, I think it’s a step in the right direction toward the greater goal of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Women have traditionally been paid less than men in the same role, so lawmakers’ intent is to eliminate this pay gap by requiring employers to compensate workers based on their value, not their previous salary. I feel proud to live in a state that leads the way for diversity, inclusion, and equity because I believe in the importance of all three. Massachusetts has historically been a forerunner for worker and human rights, notably passing the nation’s first minimum wage law which specifically guaranteed women pay commensurate with the cost of living.

Of course, the concepts of diversity and gender parity are not without detractors. After my talk, one of the audience members approached me to express his concerns. There were quite a few more women in attendance at this event, so I wasn’t terribly surprised that he waited until most of the room cleared before sharing his views. The man told me that, after a long career in the tech space, he had come to resent all of the diversity initiatives being foisted upon him and other members of his cohort — highly-skilled, white, middle-aged, men — because they made him feel deprived of opportunity and that his contributions were cheapened. “I’m so sick of this diversity stuff”, he said.

Rather than educate him on the business case for diversity and spark a lengthy debate that would keep me from my lunch (I can get hangry), I decided to take the path of least resistance and just hear the guy out because he seemed dead set on his opinion. I listened to him lament the diversity-driven hiring practices that favored women or minorities over equally qualified white men. He also argued that women taking maternity leave should not be paid as much as men because they aren’t adding the same amount of value to the organization during their absences. As he continued, a thought struck me: Men like the one with whom I was speaking aren’t trying to put anybody down. They just prefer a meritocracy wherein people are rewarded based on what they can do, not what they look like. At best, they simply see no personal value in supporting diversity efforts. At worst, they feel discriminated against when organizations take any kind of affirmative action to elevate marginalized groups of employees.

This all comes down to the challenge of engaging Caucasian males in the push for a more diverse and inclusive modern workplace. Deloitte recently made headlines and raised eyebrows when it announced the dissolution of its Employee Resource Groups. Their objective in doing so is certainly laudable: Bring white men into the diversity conversation by replacing ERGs with inclusion councils to convene employees from disparate backgrounds, including senior executives. That way everyone can gather and discuss how the organization could better serve diverse talent and customer bases. But will it work? I used to co-lead a Women & Allies ERG, and I will admit that both interest and impact among men were pretty low. So maybe it is time to rethink the way we foster diversity and inclusion.

A good place to start is taking a look at the concerns white men are raising. There’s a lot to unpack just from my relatively brief conversation with the man at the event. For example, let’s follow his train of thought about maternity leave and pay equity a bit further. What if a woman isn’t pregnant when she’s hired? Should she still be paid less based on the possibility that she might get pregnant and take a leave of absence down the road? If she chooses to have a family, should she be deemed less eligible for a promotion because her commitment to the company seems lacking? What if her husband decides to take paternity leave while she goes back to work right away? Should his pay get docked? What about a man who plans to adopt and needs to take time off from work to bond with his child? The argument that women should be paid less or treated less-favorably because they have child-rearing responsibilities just doesn’t hold up. It oversimplifies a very complicated issue and puts people in the unfair position of having to choose between job and family.

Still, thoughtful examination won’t necessarily stop white men from feeling like they are somehow being slighted by all this focus on diversity. There are plenty of reasons behind their resistance, such as men’s propensity, on average, toward being competitive and not wanting to lose their position in a hierarchy. Whatever the cause, it’s important to involve them in the process and help them understand that diversity and inclusion are meant to benefit everyone, not unfairly give preference to one group over another. Perhaps Deloitte is in the right vicinity, if not on the right track, with its new D&I strategy. Discussions about issues pertaining to diversity shouldn’t be relegated to peripheral interest groups who haven’t the captive audience nor the organizational clout to make a difference. Those at the top (roughly 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men) must be involved and invested. It’s simply a fact that diversity is and should be a critical priority in today’s ultra-competitive, hyper-connected business climate. Consumer preferences can ebb and sway, leaving rigid, old-school companies unprepared to respond. Businesses need new and different perspectives to stay relevant. They need a diverse workforce to survive.

I once had a manager who told me “Business is all about relationships.” It really is. The relationships a business forges with its customers are crucial; that’s a given. But first leaders have to establish and nurture relationships with the people who connect the business with its customers: its employees. Diversity isn’t about reaching quotas or excluding members of a certain group. It’s about cultivating an environment that attracts and engages the best talent from all walks of life. It involves building strong relationships with those employees so they feel inspired to help their company thrive in a complex and diverse global economy. That’s how the best organizations will win. And who doesn’t like winning?

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