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Why white men are diversity’s missing stakeholders

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If the recent presidential election proves anything, it’s that we — as individuals, organizations and a country — need to evolve the tech industry’s approach to diversity and inclusion.

For the past few years, tech companies have ramped up efforts to address the staggering lack of diversity, a problem that persists despite evidence that diverse companies and teams outperform their counterparts. Dozens of companies have released data and set goals; others have changed their hiring practices and introduced employee resource groups (ERGs) to support minority communities.

Despite the best of intentions, our expectations have been unrealistic — and Silicon Valley has started to recognize its own idealism. The time has come to get real, and that means acknowledging a very sobering fact: We need white men on our side and active in the diversity discussion if we’re ever going to make real progress.

In the election, the majority of white people voted for Trump, whose campaign was characterized by division rather than inclusion. And white men voted for the president-elect by at least a 10 percent margin over other groups.

The corporate world paints a similarly poor example, where white men comprise three out of four Fortune 500 CEOs. This is not a coincidence, but a symbol of a culture where one group holds the majority of power for no other reason than they have historically held that power. Without engaging more people, especially white men, and turning them from participants in a broken system into champions of change, diversity professionals, underrepresented workers and our active allies will never see the change we are all desperately hoping for.

Here’s what we have to do.

Understand and acknowledge the problem

Company leaders need to educate all employees about privilege and bias in an empathetic, action-oriented way. As sociologist Michael Kimmel said, “privilege is invisible to those who have it.” A report by Catalyst validated this notion in the workplace, finding that many white men are unaware of their privilege before engaging in group discussions about inequality, but that this can be overcome through positive learning experiences. We simply can’t assume everyone is aware that it’s harder as a black woman, for example, to move through the corporate ranks.

Our nation is at a crossroads, and the tech industry will play a critical role in determining what the future looks like.

But ignorance isn’t the only problem — denial and defensiveness are also barriers to change. The University of California at Santa Barbara found that diversity initiatives often make white men feel threatened or concerned that increased diversity will undermine their role, accomplishments or opportunities. These feelings are real and consequential, even if the rationale behind them is not objectively true. We should never excuse or tolerate unacceptable behavior, but we must approach well-intentioned colleagues with empathy and guidance on how to do better. Think of this as calling in, rather than calling out.

Teach through safe spaces

White men (and other allies) must learn how to be inclusive and use their own privilege constructively. All of us are capable of prejudice and biased behavior, but changing it is more difficult the further a person is from being the subject of discrimination. We often hear about safe spaces in the context of minority groups, but they’re equally important for educating people from majority groups. They give people a place to feel comfortable expressing their true feelings and questions, especially those that are considered difficult or taboo.

This can be as simple as booking a conference room and extending an optional invitation (it’s helpful to ask active allies to recruit participants). We’ve invited new allies to an “ask me anything about diversity” session, where we establish three ground rules:

  • Everything said stays between the participants and the facilitator.
  • There is no judgment for asking questions in the spirit of education.
  • Every question is answered with as much data as possible.

It’s inevitable participants will use the wrong words, revert to old habits or have defensive moments. But by creating space for people to try, we significantly increase our chances of success. It should go without saying, but the burden of educating new allies should not fall on “voluntold” minorities, but on people who are compensated for this work. As work in this area progresses, it also can be impactful to have “early adopters” or practiced allies assume the role of educator. With more people looking to get engaged in diversity issues post-election, there is a greater pool than ever before to tap.

Engage leaders as models for allies

History has proven minorities need majority group leaders on their side to see change. Leadership at the top — particularly white men — need to partner with diversity leaders to actively drive this change. Leaders should pay close attention to grassroots efforts starting within a company, such as the specialized training sessions that two Google Finance team members started on their own. At Atlassian, our CEOs created our first position focused exclusively on diversity and inclusion after employees began forming employee resource groups because they recognized the value of this work.

It’s important to remember the best leaders lead by example. Leaders should be public, direct and consistent about support for diversity efforts, from prioritizing attending diversity events to modeling inclusive leadership. That might involve establishing meeting rules, such as no interruptions, that ensure everyone’s views are heard. It could also entail sharing resources, modeling empathic listening or making explicit commitments to mentor and sponsor across lines of difference. These practices at senior levels can strongly influence the norms and practices of managers, allowing everyone to more effectively understand how to create a supportive, inclusive environment.

What’s next

Our nation is at a crossroads, and the tech industry — as one of the key drivers of the economy — will play a critical role in determining what the future looks like. If white men opt out of this discussion or see injustices normalizing, we won’t make progress. But if we’re able to make this everyone’s opportunity, our industry has the potential to inspire change far beyond Silicon Valley.

Featured Image: Tetra Images/Getty Images