Photograph by Jerry Cooke—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
By Anne Fisher
January 23, 2015

Dear Annie: I work for a company that recently announced a big push to hire and promote more women and minorities (no, I don’t work at Intel). I think I have a few useful ideas about this, partly based on community volunteer work I’ve done, and also because I have two smart, talented daughters who I hope will have the same career opportunities as my son.

The thing is, the task force that’s been formed to come up with diversity proposals is made up entirely of women and people of color, and I’ve gotten no response to my requests to attend the meetings or contribute ideas. Given the 99%-white-male history of Corporate America in general, and this company in particular, I see the irony of griping about being excluded. But can you suggest any ways to get my suggestions heard? —Middle-Aged White Guy

Dear MAWG: Rest assured, you aren’t the only white guy who’s feeling left out. “Too often, companies think ‘diversity’ means ‘everybody except white men,’” notes Bill Proudman. “It’s part of the reason why we exist.” Proudman is head of an Oregon-based diversity consulting firm called White Men as Full Diversity Partners, which numbers Microsoft, American Express, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks among its clients.

You don’t mention whether you know, or could get to know, anyone on the task force, but if so, Proudman recommends telling him or her your thoughts. “If you can find a kindred spirit who will listen to you with an open mind, that person could help you get involved, or at least pass along your suggestions,” he says.

But be careful not to come across as a know-it-all. “It’s important to be really transparent about your motives, and the fact that you have a personal interest in this,” says Jeanine Prime. “Start by listening, before you make your suggestions. If you come at it from a place of humility, you’re much more likely to be heard.”

As vice president of research at nonprofit Catalyst, Prime has led five detailed studies since 2006 that focus on white men’s role in companies’ diversity efforts. “Diversity has been framed as an issue that affects only women and minorities, which does white men a real disservice,” she says, adding that the word “diversity” itself is often part of the problem.

“What companies need is a culture of inclusion, meaning one that includes everyone,” Prime notes. “Trying to change the workplace without involving white men makes no sense.”

Are there other men in your company who want to see diversity, or rather inclusion, succeed? If so, she recommends “finding others who, like yourself, are genuinely interested and have ideas they’d like to contribute. A network of white men who want to be involved can help a lot”—starting with “changing the perception that ‘diversity’ isn’t about them.” A couple of years ago, Catalyst launched an online community called MARC, for Men Advocating Real Change, that you might want to check out.

Whether or not your specific ideas get a hearing at this initial task force stage of the process, both Proudman and Prime point out that there is real work you can do to make sure that diversity, or inclusion, has a chance to flourish in the long run. Says Prime, “Start by asking, what are the corporate norms around here that are so ingrained in the culture that we don’t even see them anymore?’”

One example: An expectation that “the ideal employee is one who has no commitments outside of work, so that work takes priority over anything else.” Prime notes that this is a throwback to the 1950s, when the business world was populated almost entirely by “fairly privileged” men who had full-time wives at home taking care of life’s myriad pesky details.

“Now, very few people, including very few men, have anything like that kind of support system anymore,” she points out. “Yet it is still embedded as a norm in lots of organizations. So men who are interested in making the company more inclusive could work on ways to bring the unspoken assumptions more in line with reality, with an emphasis on more flexibility.”

At the same time, it’s a rare corporate culture that doesn’t have some form of implicit bias built in, says Bill Proudman—“and that’s not just white men. Women and minorities share many of the same unconscious biases.” For instance, decades of research show that decisions about hiring and promotions aren’t usually based on merit alone, but on whether someone “fits into our ‘comfort zone,’ meaning they are most like us and easiest to communicate with, or remind us of our younger selves.”

“Even though this is one of the biggest obstacles that’s kept women and people of color from rising through the corporate ranks, white men in particular rarely examine it, or even acknowledge that it exists,” he says. That’s not because white men are bad people, he adds, but because “it’s hard for a fish to take an objective look at the water it’s been swimming in.”

Your company’s current diversity push gives you the perfect opportunity to step up and challenge outdated assumptions and unwritten rules, especially if you can enlist a group of your fellow white male peers to “get curious about what’s really been going on at different levels of the organization, and why,” says Proudman.

This isn’t just about doing the right thing, but about enlightened self-interest, he adds. “In the years ahead, companies—and managers—who are serious about inclusion have a competitive leg up over their competitors who aren’t.” Good luck.

Talkback: If your employer has a formal diversity program, does it include seeking input from white men? Leave a comment below.

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