Diversity: Why It’s a White Male Problem


Ah, diversity.

Let’s go there, shall we?

I can already see the eye-rolls in the back.

Here in the United States conversations around diversity often result in people treating such conversations with eye-rolls and slight disdain. Familiarity breeds this disdain. Diversity has been around as a corporate buzzword for decades. We’ve all likely read a brochure, watched a cheesy 90s training video or attended a training on diversity in the workplace. And yet most offices across the world continue to struggle with a diversity problem, as the majority of their C-suite executives continue to be older, white men.

In conversations around diversity, most people are generally aware that increasing diversity is a good thing. Most people are aware that diversity is both good practically, in terms of increasing a company’s competitiveness and attracting the best talent, and that diversity is also the morally right choice. The vast majority of people want to work in a diverse workplace, surrounded by people with different backgrounds than their own.

So why do diversity programs so often fail? Why does our head knowledge so rarely translate into real-world applications? Why doesn’t our theory match our practice?

There are thousands of contributing factors, variables, and issues to consider here. I am not an expert on this topic and am writing as a layperson.

I write this post not as a social justice warrior, a political liberal, or any other label people may want to quickly slap on me so as to dismiss this. I am a young, white, male, conservative professional from an upper middle-class family. In short: the only thing that’s diverse about me is my age. Soon, time will steal even this meager claim to diversity, and I will become one of those stodgy old white guys that reduce diversity scores for companies.

Being from the United States, in the 2016 election Donald Trump pushed the idea that we were working in a “rigged system” that disadvantaged working-class white people (his claim was broader, but the resonance was with working class whites). And with this public arousal of anger against the machine, Trump was elected. The irony here, of course, is that women and ethnic minorities have for years been arguing the system was rigged against them. This is the first time in recent memory that virtually everyone agreed the system was rigged. The only disagreement was who it was rigged against. And, for our purposes, an even more interesting question is who did the rigging in the first place and why.

To answer this question, let’s look at some data on diversity.

  1. Females compose over half the population but only 19% of Congress
  2. Females compose over half the population but only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs
  3. African Americans compose 14% of the US population but less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs
  4. Females compose over half the population but only 20% of corporate boardrooms
  5. Ethnic minorities compose 35% of the US population but only 10% of the US Senate (things look slightly better in Congress, but only because ethnic minorities are often packed into districts to limit their political influence).

Hiding behind each of these numbers is an all-too-obvious fact: The system is rigged. But it’s rigged against women and other minority groups. As much as I often hear other conservative white men complain about affirmative action programs diminishing their chances for success, this simply hasn’t played out in the numbers. And to the degree to which any injustice does occur as a result of affirmative action, it’s clear that in the US being a white male is still one of the biggest predictors of professional and political success. To be certain, socioeconomic factors matter significantly as well. However, the existing gaps in outcomes across incomes, the C-suite, and our elected officials serves to reinforce pre-existing socioeconomic realities.

Within conservative, white America (a group to which I belong), any talk of increasing diversity inherently results in fear. I’ve often heard people complain that they were passed over for a promotion because they were white and male–or didn’t get into a school because of their demographics. The belief, which I have heard expressed both explicitly and implicitly is that promotions and opportunities will pass to others who are less deserving than they are simply because of their gender and ethnicity. To put it simply, there’s a fear that we will be treated unfairly.

The deep irony, of course, is that the sustained advantage of white males across virtually every measurable indicator of human life suggests that the very unfairness we fear is likely the cause of our own advantage. We haven’t been winning because we’re better. We’ve been winning because the system is rigged for us. It’s easy to not notice this constant unfairness when you’re the one benefiting. However, just like with oxygen, deprivation causes awareness.

It’s thus the primary complaint of conservative white men on affirmative action programs (that they will be passed over for promotions in exchange for other, less-deserving candidates due to gender and ethnicity) is in fact precisely the thing that caused the inequality in the first place. Only this time, the shoe is on the other foot, and it doesn’t feel so good.

Within this problem lies an uncomfortable solution.

Because the current system has resulted in a disproportionate amount of white men in high levels of power in the United States, the problem of diversity will never be solved by the disadvantaged minorities. When a system is rigged, it permanently disadvantages other groups in ways that are sustained. There’s no amount of hustle that the African American community will be able to provide to result in proportionate representation as Fortune 500 CEOs. There’s no amount of leaning in women will be able to do to give them an equal chance in the workplace.

The diversity problem, being caused by white men in power, must be solved by white men in power.

And while most of us white guys are not in the C-suite, we are in offices and workplaces, and a lot of us do have power. We are hiring managers who can work to eliminate biases from our hiring processes. We are machinists who can call others out for cutting jokes about minorities and women. We are coworkers who can ensure our female colleagues’ voices are heard by not interrupting and by giving them space to voice opinions in meetings.  We are husbands who can work to ensure our wives have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. We are fathers who can set examples and actively work to make this world more just for our sons and, especially, our daughters.

It’s easy for those of us who have power and privilege to not see it as our responsibility to empower others. Turning the other way and waiting for the “system” to change is often more comfortable and less risky personally. Acknowledging the ways in which we are privileged strikes at the core of our egos and ideas about our achievements and accomplishments. It’s much easier to claim all that I have is earned by my own merit than to acknowledge the many ways the dice and lottery of life have turned in my favor. Yet those of us who have power have an obligation and responsibility to speak on behalf of those who do not. Empowering those around you is the highest calling of those who have power.

That’s why diversity is a white male’s problem. Yet it’s also his opportunity to help change the world and make it a more just and fair place for all.

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