What Straight, White Guys Donít Get About Diversity & Why

by Gregg Ward

In my work as a diversity consultant I often hear women and people of color quietly talking

Eight Critical Leadership Skills Created Through Effective Diversity Partnerships

with each other about their white, male colleagues and bosses, saying ďMost straight, white guys in the corporate world just donít get it about diversity.Ē And although Iíd like nothing better than to refute them, to defend my straight, white brethren, Iím afraid I have to agree: when it comes to diversity, we just donít get it. So, at the risk of falling into the trap of generalizing about an amazingly large and diverse group of white guys, I have to ask: what is it about diversity that we donít get and why donít we get it?

The first thing we donít get is that diversity is about lot more than just race and gender conflicts. We hear the word ďdiversityĒ and we automatically think racism, bigotry and discrimination against women and people of color. We donít think about all the other issues underneath the diversity umbrella.

We do this because we white guys are a uniquely visual lot (no, I donít have studies to support this, just 46 years of straight, white male experience). We focus on the surface diversity issues Ė race and gender Ė because theyíre easy to see, not much time or thought required. We also do it because the media does it too; bombarding us 24/7 with stories about race and gender conflicts, with the word diversity in the headline. Stories about diversity conflicts drive ratings; you know, ďif it bleeds, it leads.Ē And nothing bleeds like a black man being beaten by white cops, or women workers being the target of crude, sexual advances. So, like Homer Simpson, the quintessential straight, white guy, we take what we see at face value. We donít have the time or inclination to look beneath the surface - doh!

And thatís the second thing we donít get about diversity Ė how diverse it is. Take any group of 100 American employees working in any one of Americaís major cities and you will find enormous diversity, not just of race and gender, but of national origin, religion, politics, disability, body type, veteran status, life experience, generation, talents, skills, and dreams. Yet, corporate leadership would have us think that weíre all employees first, marching to the same droning corporate drummer, and individuals second.

Understandably, their goal is to make the disparate divisions of any one company seem more united and thus more powerful and better able to compete. Thereís nothing inherently wrong in this. But, by ignoring the enormous diversity that lies just beneath the surface, we are ignoring and failing to tap into the wealth of talent and experience that could help our businesses become even more competitive, even more innovative.

The third thing we donít get about diversity is that American corporate culture is - at every level Ė the culture of the straight, white guy. From the railroad barons of the 19th century to the oil barons of the current one, the wealthiest, most powerful American corporations have always been dominated by straight, white males of western European origin. And our culture is one of fierce competitiveness, clubby, sports-centered machismo, and good-old-boy, golf course deal making. To claim otherwise would be laughable.

Are there more women and people of color on corporate boards of directors than ever before? Sure, but at best, theyíre pioneers Ė a few brave, well-connected souls willing to stand out from the buttoned-down crowd. At worst, they are tokens; a select few who have been chosen by the powerful to make the board and by extension, the company, look like thereís a genuine commitment to diversity.

By the way, if youíre a straight, white guy reading this, youíre probably having a little trouble right now controlling your anger at me, thinking Iím overly dramatic, that Iíve blown everything out of proportion.

But, if youíre a woman or a person of color, youíre yawning, saying Ďthis is old news; tell me something I donít know.í

Which leads me to the next thing we donít get about diversity: we straight, white guys donít even know that we donít get it. You see, weíre an arrogant lot: just ask our wives (or better still, our ex-wives). We tend to think that because weíve risen up through the ranks, seemingly by our wits, bootstraps and the proverbial sweat of our brows, that we have lived lives, been there, seen it, done it and thus are entitled to claim that we have all the answers, that we know what diversity is all about and that we donít need to know any more.

But we donít get that many white males are born into privilege and often escorted by dad or connections to a comfortable seat at the table. And for those of us who actually rose up through the ranks we donít get that Ė although we did work very, very hard - in many cases our gender, the color of our skin, and our heterosexual orientation were the unspoken deciding factors in our successes.

And thatís because we donít get the concept of ďlike hires likeĒ; that if we have two candidates for a job in our department, one white and one black, but both with comparable skills, experience and qualifications, all other things being equal, weíll almost always hire the white guy. This is purely human nature, but we donít get it; or perhaps we donít want to.

And we donít get that learning about diversity, becoming culturally competent, and creating inclusive work environments are career-long efforts requiring focus, introspection, and a humble willingness to consider other perspectives besides our own.

No, we think diversity is best handled by the folks in human resources; those warm and fuzzy types we pay to keep us out of trouble or clean up after us. We donít get that the vast majority of corporate leadership and their boards are made up of the same few white guys who share money and power only with a limited group of friends, many of whom are connected to each other through family, university, club and fraternity ties.

So, if we boil it all down, there are a lot of things about diversity that we straight, white guys donít get, or at least donít want to admit. Iím not saying weíre all racists or bigots Ė far from it. Most of the straight, white guys I know are good, decent men. But, that doesnít mean we all get it about diversity; because we donít. If we did, the leadership of our corporations would look very much different than they do. Clearly, I and my white brothers have a long, long way to go and much to learn about diversity.

Most women and people of color are afraid to talk about this reality too loudly because theyíre not the ones in power, we are. Theyíre afraid of being labeled as angry or bitter or worse, not a team player. So, to paraphrase a clichť, it takes a white guy to know white guys and to speak the truth about who we are.

The sooner we straight, white men start getting it about ourselves, the sooner we can start getting down to business; to creating inclusive work environments where diversity is really valued and leveraged. And when we finally get it and start doing these things, our companies will become far more successful than we ever thought possible.

Author Profile: Gregg Ward is a Certified Management Consultant, President and CEO of the diversity consulting and training firm Orlando-Ward & Associates, Inc. He is the author of Bad Behavior, People Problems & Sticky Situations: a toolbook for managers and team leaders and Irresistible Business: making serious money in your local global marketplace is due out this fall.