How to Make White Males Understand

Many business leaders, especially white men, view diversity as a problem to solve or a set of strategies to implement. This approach overlooks the leaders’ personal role.

White male leaders who effectively lead in this effort do more than implement strategies to fix the problem. They first expand their mindsets—how they think about diversity and inclusion and how they feel and experience it.

The Impact of Culture

Like fish in water, many white men never have to leave their culture from birth to boardroom. Often they are unaware they have a culture that others must negotiate. They don’t see their behavior and action as a by-product of what the dominant culture values and rewards. Mind you, this culture is not bad. All organizations and groups have cultures. What can be problematic is when the dominant group—in this case white men—is unaware of their culture and how it impacts behavior.

For those who are not part of the dominant culture, such as women, people of color, and GLBT, this lack of awareness contributes to an expectation that they conform and assimilate into the accepted behaviors determined by the dominant culture. While everyone is expected to assimilate to some degree, it is often those outside the dominant culture who must become “bi-cultural”—experts in white male culture in addition to their own. This can be exhausting, particularly when it is not acknowledged by or even known to white men.

Vice President of Agencies at Northwestern Mutual Paul Steffen speaks about his awareness of white male culture: “Surprisingly, I haven’t had great resistance. I frame it as a learning, an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers; I’ve got a lot to learn. But at least I now know the culture is there.

“I’ve found when I bring up the notion of white male culture, other white men get curious. It starts a whole new conversation about diversity I’ve never had before with white men. When I do this with women and people of color, I can see engagement. I feel their acceptance that ‘here’s a white guy that’s trying to get it,’ that as a person of color or woman, they can talk about their reality. That creates a partnership.”

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