White Guys Are Diverse, Too

I moderated a panel last week at the Forum for Workplace Inclusion conference with some movers and shakers: Mary-Frances Winters of The Winters Group, Teresa Rothausen-Vange, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, Sam Grant of the Movement Center for Deep Democracy, and Stephen Frost, author of “The Inclusion Imperative” and former chief of staff and chief diversity officer for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games.

I tried to get Frost for a Diversity Executive cover/profile while he was with the Olympics but the timing was off. I took advantage of this opportunity to talk to him about his work there and the new book. It seemed particularly relevant since we’re all coming down from that rather disheartening display in Sochi.

He had some great things to say about the power of listening, how white men are diverse too, and why diversity should be a majority and not a minority conversation.

I wish you could have heard him speaking; he has a lovely British accent, and he calls me Lady Kellye. No idea why, but I approve. Here are some excerpts from our interview.

Why did you write “The Inclusion Imperative”?

I wrote the book because there was a great story that was never told, and that was the story behind the scenes of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. You had an amazingly diverse group of men and women who came together and did something amazing. It was proof for me, and for a lot of people, that diversity produces better outcomes. It also fit into the zeitgeist of what’s going on in the world right now. I had some really interesting theories that we could share with other organizations, and I didn’t want that to be lost.

If there’s one nugget from the book you could share that might be outside the normal diversity and inclusion conversation, what would it be?

That diversity is a majority conversation, not a minority conversation. We still persist in putting diversity into boxes. It’s their problem; it’s those guys over there, rather than realizing it’s us, no matter who we are. Everybody had a stake in the diversity and inclusion work of the Games of 2012. We brought it to new audiences, therefore shifting it from this minority conversation to a majority conversation. It’s something that I and my colleagues are most proud of.

Why are we having such a hard time making diversity and inclusion sustainable, making it stick?

A lot of people, if they’re really honest, still see this in a kind of quantitative, zero sum game. At the core, for you to get a promotion, it means my guy doesn’t. For you to be at the table, it makes more work for me. You have lots of good people in corporate America who still think of it as a minority issue, it’s either/or. And they’ll do a bit of it because they’re good people, but they’re not going to really go for it because it’s going to threaten the current system, which is working OK for them. So you have good people doing loads of initiatives and programs, and initiatives are always going to have a time cost, an opportunity cost. They’re always going to be add-ons. Let’s change the system. Let’s not just do a program for people with disabilities or for African-Americans to join a company. Let’s change the recruitment system, which innately discriminates against those people, and make it more open.

For example, I still see job descriptions that will have a value in there like “assertive.” Again, good people put that word in because they think, assertive, sure. We want people to speak up, to challenge, to call out bad behavior, to be whistle-blowers. But if I as a white man am assertive, I am acting completely within my norm and I am rewarded for it. If you as a black woman are assertive, you are acting outside the norm and you are penalized for it. It’s not neutral. For me, getting us all to realize that it’s in all of our interests to challenge the notion that we’re objective, and to stop doing initiatives and programs over here and start to change the system, has breakthrough potential for us all.

How can you get white men in the U.S. to engage in diversity and inclusion? Is it hard?

Sure. It’s always hard when you get down to personal stuff. We can talk about, oh, we have the productivity, or the decision-making. I can talk to them about that, and I’ll probably have more credibility in their eyes because I’m a white man. Oh, OK, he’s got the Harvard thing. I’m going to listen to this guy. I can do that based on my privilege, on my identity.

They can get this theoretical idea of the zero-sum game and enlarging the pie, and it doesn’t have to be either/or, that actually having women on your board does increase the decision-making capacity of that board; it does lead to better outcomes, and we can show the correlation between gender diversity and financial performance in the Fortune 500. Then we get down to the personal.

We say, OK, what about when it comes down to your guy who’s maybe not going to get that promotion and she is. Then how are you going to feel? It’s going for this process of understanding, which we can do, this place of leadership, which we can do, then we get to delivery — show me the money. That’s where we’ve got to get to, but we never get there because either they’re not listening, or they perceive it as those people over there shouting, or those people over there acting in their own self-interest. You never get down to that point where you can genuinely have the conversation and say, OK, we’re on the same page.

What about white men globally — is it different?

It’s different for everyone. We were talking [on the panel] about infinite diversity, right? And the same way no two African-American folks are the same, no two white folks are the same. Everyone is infinitely different, by definition, from their DNA upwards. I think trying to listen before assuming is really important, and it’s especially important when it’s really hard. When it’s with somebody you’re already going to have a bias and a prejudice about, and you’re going to assume what they’re going to say in the first half-second of meeting them. No, no, we’ve got to listen, and that can be hard sometimes. It can be painful sometimes, believe me. But you’ve got to listen because if you don’t listen, then you’re not learning. You’re not getting the intelligence to know how to respond.

People that we fundamentally disagree with, people whose opinions we might really have a problem with, they’re a human being. They have a perspective. If we can get inside their heads and their space, where they’re coming from, and then put forward those bits of the business case and emotional case that resonate for them, make it personal, then you get buy-in.

One of the reasons we don’t make progress is because you’ve got both sides shouting at each other and making assumptions about each other and not actually seeing who we are as people. That straight white male executive in the States may have had an adopted kid or may have lost a daughter, or may have his best friend who is African-American. We can’t necessarily assume, and for understandable reasons based on painful history and stereotypes, we do assume. We make cognitive shortcuts in our heads the whole time. It’s how we live; it’s how we cope with information overload. But we have to breathe and listen. Learn where they’re coming from. Learn as a diversity professional which bits of the diversity business case I can download that are going to resonate best with that person.


Well said, Sir Frost.