Skip to content

Challenging the ‘white guy equals bad guy’ stereotype

Can white men really be diversity advocates? It’s a question that’s attracted press coverage recently with the appointment of former Army Chief David Morrison as Australian of the Year.

‘Who would have guessed that Australia’s newest diversity champion is a paid-up member of the straight white dudes club?’ wrote Judith Ireland, national political reporter for Fairfax media.

For me, it was an inspired choice. There’s something special when a person from a ‘dominant majority’ – in this case ‘white men’ – understands the unspoken privileges of their group and what’s even more compelling is when they commit to help others challenge behaviours and subtle norms that exclude those who aren’t part of the majority group.

When these people hold powerful leadership roles – such as Australian of the Year, or Army Chief – they open doors, start conversations, and question outdated stereotypes and discriminatory practices with compelling urgency and impact.

The ripple effect of this type of behaviour cannot be underestimated.

The ‘can a white man really be a diversity advocate’ question pops up time and time again in our consulting work and during workshops we facilitate to build awareness of unconscious bias. I know, the irony …

Only last month, a lawyer running late to one of our workshops did a double-take when she saw my colleague, Duncan Smith, facilitating the session. Pausing at the door, she asked if this was the diversity session. At the break, she explained to Duncan she thought she was in the wrong place because ‘what’s a white guy doing running a diversity workshop?’

Although diversity experts have long advocated the value of engaging men in dialogue to overcome the ‘white guy equals bad guy’ stereotype, there’s a lingering view that diversity is essentially about women, people of different cultural backgrounds, and those from other minority groups.

Actually it’s even narrower in many private sector organisations: diversity is about gender diversity, which is (unspoken) code for women.

It’s easy to make that assumption when you look at who ‘manages’ diversity in organisations. Responsibility for diversity in private sector organisations typically lies with women, often in part-time human resources roles.

And that’s just one reason (among many) why it’s important to have advocates such as David Morrison, who has spoken publicly about ‘life-changing meetings’ with former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and female soldiers.

There are now several strong programs that explicitly engage men, such as Australia’s ‘Male Champions of Change’ collaboration of CEOs, department heads and non-executive directors and global initiatives such as PwC’s ‘White Men and Diversity’ program.

Robert Moritz, PwC’s US Chairman and Senior Partner, has said that white men often default to saying nothing because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing.

In more recent times, some of Australia’s most senior male business leaders have had their own ‘a-ha’ moment and moved from simply having an intellectual understanding of gender diversity issues to having an authentic and driven engagement of the heart and mind to help advance women and men by:

• Educating themselves – they make the time and prioritise conversations with women in their organisation, particularly those who have experienced discrimination

• Participating in Unconscious Bias awareness training

• Committing to actively mentor high potential women

• Leading diversity councils

• Actively reflecting on their most recent appointments – the processes and systems they have in place to ‘catch’ and minimise unconscious biases

If we’re serious about progressing diversity in organisations, we need a range of voices and perspectives at all levels championing diversity. We also need a simultaneous and systemic focus on developing an inclusive work culture where all employees feel free to contribute and reach their potential.

These efforts focus on building understanding of power disparities between dominant and non-dominant groups, experiences of inclusion and exclusion, and identifying unconscious biases in decision-making and talent management processes as part of broader strategic efforts to embed diversity and inclusion.

We’ll know we’ve made serious inroads when all leaders have this understanding, and, like David Morrison, a genuine commitment to making a difference.

If you’re a leader committed to change, here’s a few ways to get started:

• Learn more about your own biases, preferences and beliefs by undertaking the free Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT), one of the most effective global online tools for identifying unconscious biases: Click here to take the test.

• Engage your teams in a conversation about diversity and unconscious bias at your next leadership team meeting

• If you, yourself, believe you are part of a ‘dominant Anglo male majority’ group – reflect on the contribution or positive impact you could have in progressing diversity in your organisation and learn how others have done it:

• Listen to Duncan Smith speak about ‘Diversity for white men’: Click here for video.

• Consider a development program to build your team’s awareness of unconscious bias and the link to better decision-making: Learn more here.

About Dr Katie Spearritt

More Recent Articles

Follow us

Skip to content