Companies Struggling to Engage White Men on Diversity and Inclusion

By Melissa J. Anderson

A new study out of Greatheart Leader Labs and Georgetown University shows that white men are less likely to be engaged in diversity and inclusion initiatives at companies. This is a problem, write the report authors, Chuck Shelton, managing director at Greatheart Leader Labs, and David A. Thomas, Ph.D., dean of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

“Globally, 32 million white men hold leadership positions, with six million in the United States. White men possess more than 40% of the leadership jobs in most companies, and that percentage increases dramatically by leadership level. The position power and leadership skills that white men possess need to align with the value that diversity and inclusion delivers.”

Because white men tend to dominate the ranks of the world’s largest companies, they hold both the purse strings when it comes to diversity and inclusion programs and the social influence necessary to make these programs work. Shelton and Thomas write that white men are “a significantly underperforming asset in every company’s global D&I investment portfolio.”


One of the biggest challenges identified by the report is that there is skepticism on behalf of white men on the value of diversity and inclusion programs, as well as the suspicion that some people may receive jobs or promotions that they are unqualified for through these programs. Shelton and Thomas explain:

“Progress is stifled by the perceived tension between the qualifications of diverse employees and the organizational commitment to diversity. Savvy leaders do not ignore or exaggerate dimensions of diversity; they lead with due regard for the way diversity operates in their relationships and spear of influence. This is one way all leaders build trust.”

Similarly, many of the people who were polled who were not white men (the report refers to them as “all others”) don’t necessarily see the value of including white men in inclusion and diversity programs. “Leaders who are not white and male… may quietly doubt that white male inclusion will open doors for them,” the report says.

Additionally, some white, male respondents seemed downright irritated to be part of a study on race and gender, and responded with what the report authors called “deflective comments.”

That meant providing responses claiming the questions were biased and unfair, or that race and gender don’t matter these days. “You could never ask these questions about black women” was one response. Shelton and Thomas write, “We need to recognize deflections, and respond to such viewpoints through honest, straightforward dialogue.”


But the report wasn’t all bad news – in fact, the results could the basis for constructive dialogue around race and gender within the workplace.

For example, white men judged their performance around diversity significantly higher than others (the study notes a 33 percent effectiveness gap on measures like the ability to build diverse teams, promote diverse candidates, or include diverse voices in decision making).

But at the same time, even though white men perceived themselves as far more capable when it comes to diversity and inclusion than everyone else perceived them, the vast majority of all respondents (80 percent) rated white men positively when it came to their ability to show respect for diverse colleagues. Similarly, “79% of white men indicated that they are ‘usually’ or ‘almost always’ comfortable talking about diversity and inclusion issues with colleagues.”

This means there is a broad opening for white men to enter the diversity conversation in a meaningful way. The report authors provided several recommendations on providing diversity training that includes white men without spotlighting them, and ensuring that the training includes discussions around “hiring, coaching, team development, and sponsoring.”

Finally, the report authors suggested that companies pay more attention to conflict resolution training focused on diversity and inclusion. They write:

“Findings in this research build the case for conversations of care and candor, as we seek to engage and equip white men to integrate diversity and inclusion more effectively into their leadership work. And the commitment to white male leadership development must focus on accountability for improved behavior and results, with the expectation of conflict well-resolved.”

In order for companies to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce, all leaders will have to support and truly believe in the value of diversity. That means ensuring that white men are part of that solution.

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