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Anticipating backlash: Responding to ‘woke nonsense’

A backlash to diversity and inclusion efforts is almost inevitable at certain times of the year. This week is one of them.

For some, the current media coverage of employer gender pay gaps and International Women’s Day events signal, yet again, that diversity and inclusion efforts are going too far, are ‘political correctness’, or simply ‘woke nonsense’.

Just last week a leader in one of our workshops asked about discrimination against Anglo-Saxon men. A successful board member told us he felt white men are the ‘roadkill’ of diversity and inclusion initiatives.

In our work, we always encourage holding space respectfully for differences in our conversations. So we hold space and stay curious about what’s behind this thinking.

This is how I respond when I hear these comments. My response is drawn from personal reflection, evidence from surveys and focus groups with thousands of people over decades, and what the research shows us about the experiences of marginalised and under-represented groups.

We share it here, in the hope that it might help others.

Katie’s response

We appreciate the perspective and understand that many people hold this view. Thank you for sharing it. We’re keen for you to share more about why you think there’s discrimination against Anglo-Saxon men.

When we’re not the direct targets of sexism, racism, homophobia or ableism ourselves, it’s easily possible to not notice them or overlook this reality.

There’s even a phrase for this: ‘the privilege of oblivion’. It means we hold a certain privilege to be able to be oblivious to biases and inequalities. (I get it. As a white Australian woman, for some time I was oblivious to the microaggressions that women of colour experience until I started having conversations with colleagues and friends and took it upon myself to learn more.)

And sometimes when this privilege is threatened, it feels uncomfortable. The easy response – the one that feels “safe” - is to discredit diversity efforts as though they’re trying to take something away.

It’s great you raised this observation, because it gives us an opportunity to build our understanding of what others may experience in workplaces today, people with a different lived experience to yours.


From our perspective, we can hold space for this view, but we must acknowledge the reality for so many people in Australian workplaces who don’t feel safe and included. So, we listen and then use this as an opportunity to educate.

In Australia, one in three people report being sexually harassed (and those figures are higher for people with disability, LGBTIQ+ people, and First Nations people).

Casual sexism (jokes and gender stereotyping) is commonplace. Racism is prevalent. Women who are the ‘only’ in a team are more likely to experience micro-aggressions, harassment, and discrimination. Gender pay gaps in all industries favour men.

Anglo-Saxon men dominate executive and board positions. Only one in four organisations that reported to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency had gender balanced leadership teams (between 40% to 60% women). More broadly, women are underrepresented in seven of Australia’s nine parliaments.

We validate their experiences while grounding this with a deeper understanding of workplace culture.

This method provides an opportunity to encourage their empathy for others.

Building empathy for others during workshops

“Let’s try something. Take a moment to imagine you’re in a team meeting. You’re in the minority. You’re as qualified as everyone else. You share your perspective, and someone rolls their eyes. Some ignore you. Some take credit for the view you’ve just shared. Most people in the in-group have a nickname. You don’t. Some people outside of the meeting will label you by your race or mock your accent. When you let the team know you’ve got caring responsibilities and can’t make work drinks tonight, some people snigger.

“When that’s a common experience for you, as it is for many in Australian workplaces today, how might you feel when someone says the effort to support more diverse and inclusive workplaces is woke nonsense?”


We come to expect backlash in this work. And resistance is often a sign that progress is being made. So, next time you hear that phrase, notice who’s saying it and use these strategies for a constructive conversation.

As we know, the reality is that respectful, inclusive workplaces are far from woke nonsense and are actually better for everyone – Anglo-Saxon men included.

About Dr Katie Spearritt

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