I began my session yesterday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference in Laguna Nigel, Calif, by asking the audience for a show of hands. Who’s more optimistic about race issues, social justice and inclusion than they were a month ago? Not a single hand. Less optimistic? Most hands went up.
It was a good reminder that the divisive rhetoric of the campaign season – and beyond – continues to have a dampening effect on the people who think about inclusion as part of their jobs or personal missions.
The title of our panel was “Your Talent Rx,” a working session on race, gender and culture. You can watch a replay of the livestream here. A full recap is coming later today.
After the conversation, one human resource head told me that she was getting serious pushback from mostly white, male managers on their inclusion efforts, which include recruiting, employee resource groups and yes, in-depth bias and diversity training. “I’m getting lots of calls now – ‘Why are we doing this? Why is this necessary?’” she said, asking to remain anonymous. “We’re back to selling the business case for diversity – which is real for us, particularly at the customer-facing level.”
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She said her CEO has new resolve, but also needs new ideas. “We’re building inclusion into everything we do and say, and de-emphasizing – but keeping – special programs that are designed to help move diverse candidates into middle management and beyond,” she said. “We’re definitely thinking hard.”
One idea that came from the audience involved recruiting an unlikely ally near you within the organization and asking that person to support your initiatives whether or not they’re diversity experts. You’ll know him when you see him said one audience member: it’s the “one white guy you know who gets it.”
We had a bit of fun imagining all the white managers suddenly beset upon by diversity advocates across corporate America, but the reasoning is sound and supported by research. When people with obvious position power embrace the idea of diversity and begin to understand its human value and live its practices, the concept becomes less threatening to everyone.
Stay tuned for more.
Ellen McGirt is a senior editor at Fortune.