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How Majorities Can Help Minorities — Bill Proudman

Contributor: Andrea Yeh

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Bill Proudman, founder and CEO of White Men as Full Diversity Partners.  As a leadership development consultant, coach, and facilitator to many organizations, Bill works to help men see that diversity in the workplace relates to them, too. He has also co-authored a three-volume field guide on white men in leadership and diversity partnerships.

Stew Friedman: Let’s talk a little about your background.  How did you get into advocating for men to be engaged in discussions about diversity in the workplace?

Bill Proudman:  bill proudmanMy background from forty years ago was in the Outward Bound movement—the outdoor adventure, personal growth realm.  I was engaging with people, observing what happens when we change our assumptions, and how that affects behavior and action.  Around the late ’80s, I had a learning experience that was profoundly transformative for me.  For the first time ever in my life, I realized that I was white, male, and, in my case, heterosexual.

I learned that was my group identity and that my membership in those groups had a bearing on how I viewed the world, how I walked through the world, what I expected not just of myself but of others, colleagues.

SF: Was there a particular incident that led you to this epiphany, or did it happen gradually?

BP: Well, there was the original epiphany at a two-hour workshop that I attended that opened the door to this set of identities and privileges that I, as a straight white man, never had to think about.

I recognized that, as a straight, white man, a lot of my own personal beliefs and values had come from my upbringing.  Where it really became crystalized was in the early ’90s when I was starting to do diversity work.  I was noticing a peculiar dynamic. When I was working with executive teams, anytime the issue of diversity came up, the white men in the team would always outsource the issue to anybody on the team who wasn’t a white male, so it would always be the white women, colored men or women, or out gay or lesbian person on the team.  All of a sudden, they were anointed as the diversity guru.  This was very unconscious and very well-intended on their parts, but basically what it did was to create the dynamic where they never spoke about the topic white male to white male.

SF: So while the intention was to perhaps give voice and power to the minority group representative, it was in fact making it worse for him or her?

BP: It’s a complicated issue.  For example, many companies put together diversity councils.  When I would go work with those councils, I would meet with some of the white men on those councils.  Invariably, they would introduce themselves as the “token white guy” on the council.  Behind this word “token” was the notion that “I know that diversity is about all of us, but really I’m just here.  I don’t know anything, but I’m learning a lot because I’m having great conversations about these issues with colleagues who are, of course, the experts.”  So, a big part of my work is to emphasize that diversity inclusion is, from a leadership standpoint, everybody’s issue.  When we white men outsource the issue to others, we actually abdicate some of our responsibility in creating a more inclusive environment.

SF: So one of the keys to making white men into full diversity partners is to not delegate away the responsibility for leading that effort.  Is that right?

BP: Exactly.  In the United States right now if you think of Chief Diversity Officers of Fortune 500 companies, I know of two who were straight white men, and one of the guys retired.   Those roles are almost always held by white women, men and women of color, or gays or lesbians because of this pervasive societal notion that those are the people who are best able to coach, mentor, and support organizations on the topic of diversity and inclusion.  In some ways, this lets white men off the hook.

SF: But it seems to me that the other side of what you’re proposing is that if you didn’t have a representative from the minority group in the Chief Diversity Officer slot, it would seem like a different kind of problem.  How can you have a privileged white man who doesn’t understand his own unconscious bias leading the effort for diversity in our organization?  It doesn’t seem right.

BP: Exactly, it’s a Catch 22. The role of the Chief Diversity Officer is to act as a partner and help business leaders be accountable on this issue much in the same way that they’re accountable for safety, manufacturing, or other business metrics.  So this should not be outsourced to a particular department.  But if a large part of the population does not think that this issue is about them and their groupit can create really challenging difficulties at the personal and organizational levels for people who happen to be female and the first VP or SVP.   She is not just operating on her own merits.  She cannot fail because she would let down all the other women.  In other words, when you and I [older white men] get promoted, we can wash out of a position.  If I fail, no one looks at you and says, “You know what happens.  It’s another one of those white guys.”  A woman or a person of color who washes out of a very senior position can create enormous ramifications on others of the group.  As a white man, I have the privilege of being seen as an individual.  No one confuses me with all the other white men.

SF: So you are saying that women and minorities who rise through the ceilings that they have to break through carry a special weight because they are representing, right?

BP: Absolutely.  I’m not representing anyone in those situations other than myself, so it lets me more easily be more of who I am.  I’m not even conscious of this 99 percent of the time, and other white men are not either.  And for those women and people of color, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker for them either. But a woman who’s new to a role may believe that she can’t fail because she has to prove that she didn’t get the job simply because she’s female and someone wanted to score some points on their diversity scorecard.  Those of us that are white and male are generally free of that pressure.  It doesn’t mean that our work lives aren’t challenging and stressful at times, but it’s certainly not about who we represent.

SF: So what are the keys to creating the social and cultural context for there to be true partnerships where all parties are engaged collaboratively in the struggle to create an equal playing field that is truly inclusive?

BP: That’s a great question.   Catalyst, the New York-based global corporation that for fifty years has been looking at research of women in the corporate environment, did a study a couple years back and found three large barriers for men who are visible champions around gender equity: apathy, fear, and ignorance.  Apathy was rooted in the notion that if I and other men think about diversity as everyone else’s issue other than mine, I can be a pretty good short-term champion about trying to create good environments for those historically marginalized groups, but ultimately long-term I have to really understand my personal self-interest in creating a more equitable environment.  So apathy is one barrier.

Another one is fear.  For a lot of men in the US, we have a fear of making mistakes, and that’s certainly very prevalent these days.  In any given month, there’s something in the popular media about some notable figure, some politician, or some celebrity who’s made a faux pas, and all of this magnifies this idea for men of having to be perfect and not making any mistakes. We’ve got the privilege of being silent.  Nobody thinks badly if we don’t raise our voices.

And, lastly, ignorance can be real or perceived—it doesn’t matter.  The fact is that I don’t know that I don’t know.   Being part of this group, I’m sort of this fish in water.  I’m in a culture, that is, the water that I swim in, where I almost never have to leave, and because I never have to leave it, I don’t even know that I’m in water.

SF: Some people refer to this as unconscious bias, and note there are things that we can do about it.  What have you been doing in your work?  Are your workshops integrated, or are they for white men only?

BP: We do some of both.  Because historically white men have always learned about diversity from people other than white men, in 1997 we started a white male only learning experience where it was with white men learning with and from white men debunk the myths that we don’t know anything about the topic and, more importantly, that we don’t think that we can learn anything about inclusion from other white men.

SF: What was the reaction to that?  I can imagine there being all kinds of resistance to the idea of an exclusive white male club for dealing with the question of diversity.  It seems somewhat paradoxical.

BP: I read an article called “White Men and Diversity: An Oxymoron” that was exactly about that topic.  It’s that notion that “You’ve got to be kidding me.  It’s a group of white men.  That’s not very inclusive or diverse.”  But that’s what happened in 1997, and it’s still very much alive today.  We just did a workshop last summer in Portland, Oregon, where our company resides, with the mayor, the police chief, and the police commanders for the police bureau, and it was a white male only session.  Even though Portland has a fairly socially progressive label for itself, there were a lot of comments in the public discourse.  Media outlets here said that the mayor had lost his mind because it’s not a normalized notion.  For forty years or more, we’ve learned everything about difference from these marginalized groups.  The purpose of white male-only learning is to reframe and reset how men, and white men in particular, come to learn this.  One of the great benefits of this work is not just how I relate to other white guys but also how I reframe my relationship with white women and people of color.

SF: So how does that work?  Give us a snapshot of what actually happens in the white male-only groups that transforms the conversation and the mindset.

BP: I love to tell a story about one of our longtime clients.  He’s the Senior Vice President running a North American marketing organization for a global company.  His name is Lee.  .  Until this work, Lee, like most people in the US, believed that he didn’t see race and gender.  He aimed to treat everybody the same.  Through this work, he learned that maybe some other people in the organization were having a different experience.  Out of curiosity, he went to an African-American colleague he had known for 25 years who was three or four layers down in the organization from him, and he asked him if he would be willing to talk to him about what it was like as a black man working in the company.  This black gentleman was a little taken aback because that’s not a normal conversation to have, even with somebody he’s known for 25 years.  But they negotiated that boundary, and this gentleman shared something with Lee for the first time ever.  He said, “Lee, something I’ve heard you say for 25 years is that you expect people who report to you to manage down, across, and up, and I’ve really struggled with that.   I think my career is really stalled.  I’ve never thought about this before, but I realized that, when I grew up in Georgia in the ’60s, my father and the other black men and women in my life told me not to look white men in the eye because to do that would be a threat to my physical well-being, if not my life.  I’ve never thought about this until now, but I think that I’ve carried this into the workplace.  I think it’s a residue of something that happened a long time ago.”  Lee was stunned, and he asked, “What, if anything, do you want me to do about that?”  And the black man said, “I’m not sure, but just being able to talk about it out loud with you and not being told to stop whining or to just get over it or that I was just playing a race card was comforting.”  So the two agreed that they would continue talking. It was important just to be heard.

To learn more about Bill Proudman and his work, read his blog posts for White Men as Full Diversity Partners or MARC (Men Advocating Real Change), an initiative of Catalyst.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Andrea Yeh Andrea Yehis an undergraduate junior majoring in Operations and Information Management and in International Relations.

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