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Dear White Male Colleagues


Dear Straight White Male Colleagues,

Are you clear on your role in supporting DEI in your organizations? 

The data says “no,” but that should come as no surprise to most of you; you’ve been telling us for years many of you neither feel invited nor supported to be involved in DEI within your organizations. 

DEI is an uncomfortable topic, regardless of your ideological perspective. Political groups wishing to use DEI as a wedge issue minimize its importance and have taken to trivializing it, name-calling supporters of DEI as “woke.”  

You may have been hammered at work or on social media for what you feel or think, or perhaps you’ve seen other white guys publicly humiliated or “canceled” only because they asked the wrong question. 

People may have quickly judged you because you made an insensitive comment. Or you may have felt like people stereotyped you because you are white, straight, and male. 

How hypocritical— isn’t DEI about learning to value everyone? 

white men report in record numbers that they don’t think DEI is about or for them. Many also believe that talking about differences is divisive, and still, others just flat-out disagree with investing in DEI because it’s unnecessary. Of course, you don’t say these things publicly because you know everyone is supposed to be on board with DEI, and you fear that saying what you think might be career-limiting. 

Despite these barriers, your support for creating more inclusive workplaces is needed now more than ever, and if you’re not sure what to do, here are a few first steps to take that will make a big difference for you and your organization.

START by being curious.  Learn how people from underrepresented groups experience the workplace differently than you do. Listen to their stories. Note the similarities and trends that exist between them. Replace your natural tendency to problem-solve with empathy and compassion.

NOTICE your desire for data proving the business case of DEI.  There is nothing wrong with wanting data. However, remember that the lived experience of marginalized people IS data. Suspend your disbelief when you hear their stories of mistreatment and discrimination. I know questioning the data feels reasonable and even logical to you, but think about how those questions land on someone who experiences prejudice and bias daily, even hourly.  

The truth is that “the data” is all around us every day if we work closely with members of underrepresented groups. Listen to the experiences they have every day at work that are markedly different from the workplace you experience.  That’s “data.” 

And here’s one more point about you needing more data: When YOUR organization rolls other improvement initiatives – like Supply Chain Transformation, Talent Recruitment, Sustainability, or just new stakeholder engagement plans – did you question the data? Look at your curiosity and ensure it’s not driven by bias. After all, the business case for DEI has been proven countless times for years. This question feels, frankly, uninformed. Google or Chat GPT it.

FIND OUT what others are doing to assist with your organization’s DEI strategy.  Find other white straight male colleagues who are involved and talk to them about what they are doing and why. Don’t just talk to one white guy; speak to lots of them.  Doing so will give you more options and ideas for how you can support the effort. Why am I suggesting you talk to other white guys instead of someone from an underrepresented group? Your objective is to learn how to support your organization’s DEI strategy as a white man because that’s what you are. Who better to ask than someone from your group?

STOP asking, “When will we be done working on DEI?” Often, while you are wondering when our organization will stop focusing on DEI, others at work are wondering when your organization will start focusing on DEI. The “When will we be done?” question conveys that finishing is more important to you than working on it. Similarly, do you question when other improvement strategies in your organization will end? If not, check your bias.

START realizing that others may see you as part of the white male group even though you don’t see yourself as part of any group. Despite how different you may be from the other white men you work with or how you see yourself purely as an individual, you are a member of a group, just like people from different racial or ethnic groups. We all belong to other social identity groups, whether we feel we are members or not. Being a member of a group doesn’t mean you are a replica of other straight white men – you can be a group member and a unique individual.

GET COMFORTABLE with being called a “white male,” even if the person doing it means it as an insult. Like every other group, people from your group have done some fantastic things over the centuries that have contributed substantially to society. It’s essential to recognize that certain sects, cults, and subsets of the white male group have perpetrated dastardly acts over the centuries and even today. Let’s learn to accept and acknowledge the impact our group has had on people from minority groups without feeling like they are explicitly blaming us. 

What happened in the past isn’t our fault, but what happens from today into the future IS our responsibility. 

Don’t be fooled or misinformed by the skeptics; you are needed in DEI and are essential to continuing to evolve our complex democratic society, whatever your viewpoint or beliefs are. Join in the dialogue. There is room for all of us in the discussion; your voices are needed alongside everyone else’s. 

We are listening.

DEI and the 4 Questions Skeptics Ask

By Affirmative Action, DE&I, Diversity, Education, Racism
Students in the Affirmative Action Coalition march from Harvard through Cambridge, chant in support of diversity and affirmative action on college campuses. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Students in the Affirmative Action Coalition march from Harvard through Cambridge, chant in support of diversity and affirmative action on college campuses. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)


Did you know that 25 years ago, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted that the issue of racial discrimination would be something our society would not have to confront today? 


In 2003, Justice O’Connor summarized her opinions in a Court case on affirmative action at the time: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [of increasing diversity in colleges and universities] approved today.” Can we agree that optimistic prediction has not come true? From attempts to intimidate and threaten Black and Brown voters in the recent U.S. election to confronting anti- Semitic sentiments and hate speech from public figures, we are still dealing with racism daily in U.S. society. 

The cases before the Court now were brought by the organization, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), who are seeking the elimination of all “race-conscious” admissions practices in universities and colleges. The Supreme Court has rejected the organization’s arguments twice already, and ruled that universities can consider race in admissions to promote diversity on campus and enrich students’ learning experience.

What’s going on? Why can’t we do as Justice O’Connor predicted and overcome and evolve past the stain of racism, racial bias, and discrimination?   

I don’t have an answer to that question, but here is an observation about the patterns of misunderstanding that seem stall true progress. 

In our work with clients around the world, some of my colleagues and I have noticed there are four questions that are repeatedly asked in arguments like this that take us down the problem- solving rabbit hole. 

It seems to me that these questions are motivated by a desire to intentionally stall progress. In other instances, the questions stem from a constructive intention, but the people asking these questions lack the ability to actually hear the words or see the lived experience of our colleagues, friends, and neighbors who have to deal with racial discrimination on a daily basis. 

The four questions are:

  1. The “What about…?” equivocation question: People ask this question based on the assumption that all forms of discrimination are solved with the same solution. Ask anyone who deals with the intersectional issues of, say, accessibility along with racism, and they’ll tell you the remedy for one is very different than the remedy for the other. The issue before the Supreme Court has to do with banning preference based on race. Though the cases being argued today are about diversity and recruitment/acceptance policies in universities, the point being argued has its origins in the 14th Amendment.  The language of the amendment was intended to address the racial backlash in the South following the end of the Civil War to provide formerly enslaved citizens with the same protections as all U.S. citizens, making their lynching, murder and assault unlawful (ACLU).
  2. The “Where’s the data” question: My colleagues who are men and women of color say this is the most frustrating question of all. For them, the “data” happens every day in the regular course of living their lives. It includes the ways they are looked at or treated in public spaces or asked to speak for their whole group, as in, “You’re Black; what do your people think about this?” They live and have to confront the data in ways that people like me have never experienced. Justice Sotomayor courageously offered up her own educational experience as data that affirmative action worked. Her grades, she said, would not have normally allowed her to get into Yale Law School, even though she excelled as a student once she was admitted. Her life story – like millions of other U.S. citizens – is the data.
  3. The definition question: It’s hard for me to believe that this question, when asked,  is genuine. It sounds like a passive-aggressive way to stall looking at root causes or finding solutions. For example, Justice Thomas, in the oral arguments, asked, “What is the definition of diversity?” and then answered his own question by saying it seems to mean “giving everything to everyone.” It would have been more direct to say, “I don’t subscribe to diversity as a valid concept for the Court to consider.”  Taking the bait and providing definitions of terms like “diversity” or “equity” or” inclusion” divert the conversation from actual problem-solving to an exercise in semantics. 
  4. The “When will we be done?” question: “When will we know anti-discrimination practices have gone far enough?” Does it strike you as odd that we are asking when we will be done working on eliminating discrimination when we have yet to be successful holding people accountable for doing it? It’s like saying “When are we going to stop funding cancer research?” knowing that there are still so many incurable or hard-to-treat forms of cancer. How about we solve more of the problem and THEN talk about when enough is enough?

A mentor once told me that, “Affirmative action is a clunky, inelegant, but necessary engineered solution to a human dynamic, and a problem that defies simple solutions. You can’t engineer mindsets.” They warned me, and that’s what was most disturbing when I listened to the Court proceedings. Some justices just sound like their minds are made up, and they are unable or unwilling to look past the literal interpretation of the 14th Amendment to consider the context of our society, then and now. 

It is astonishing to hear some of the justices ask the same basic questions our clients who have never had the opportunity to delve deeply into diversity and inclusion ask. The difference is that the Justices are supposed to be among the most learned and informed among us. It was heartbreaking to listen to some of the Justices go down the rabbit hole of these four questions. Is that they don’t understand the real issue or do they not believe it’s really worth considering? 

Ways to Deal with the Four Questions:

Do your best not to take the bait. No answer you can provide and no dialogue about them will actually move the needle toward a more equitable society. Instead, start with listening to their story—all of it. 

Say something like, “What really bothers you about working towards a society with no racial discrimination? Or “What are you afraid of if the Court upholds affirmative action—as imperfect as it is—to help rebalance the scales of justice?” Asking a question like this creates connection with the person asking the question, rather than taking a stance of debate. It also gets more to the heart of the issue, which is their resistance – not the legitimacy of DE&I work or, in this case, affirmative action.

A decision to completely overturn the Grutter v. Bollinger case, which was basically a blueprint for race-conscious college admissions, could have devastating outcomes when it comes to college admissions. According to a brief filed by Harvard, more than 40 percent of universities in the U.S. consider race during the admissions process. Let’s hope the Supreme Court will not vote to end the use of racial classifications in college admissions. 

Whatever the outcome, we can assume the next few years are going to be trying when it comes to the Court and their current stance on Affirmative Action.  Here’s to working together to protect it.

If not now, when? sign

Tips on Starting a DE&I Office in an Organization

By Diversity

It’s a phenomenon that happens every day—more frequently since the heightened focus on racial justice and diversity, equity and inclusion began in the spring of 2020:

well-meaning organizations rushing to create a diversity, equity, and inclusion function or office that is embedded in their business.

The goal of such as DEI office is to not only help with compliance issues like hiring and employment practices, but also to promote positive employee engagement activities such as employee resource groups and diversity councils that advise and advocate for equity across the enterprise.

I’ve got several clients and even friends who are Chief Diversity Officers or Senior VPs of diversity in their organizations. Some of them report making great progress in key areas such as representation, employee engagement and creating real business practices that promote equity and diversity. Others work to manage their frustration with the unrelenting resistance and skepticism they encounter from their peers or senior leaders. As an outside observer, their roles appear to be very stressful. Most of them become the voice for minoritized or underrepresented group members within their organizations, and they have to manage the paradox of gently (usually) leading their colleagues and CEOs towards their vision of DE&I for the organization on the one hand, while hearing personal accounts from employees on how they don’t see or feel inclusion efforts are really making a difference. CDO level turnover rates are high, and when they leave, they are less likely to take another diversity chief role, opting instead for a different type of job that is less stressful.

In 2021, hiring of diversity chiefs tripled within Standard & Poor’s 500 index firms, according to a report by Russell Reynolds and Associates. However, only about 53% of S&P 500 firms have a Senior Diversity role, up from 47% in 2018.  Given that CDO roles have been common in corporations for two decades or longer, one has to wonder if organizations who are just now creating an executive-level diversity function are doing so in part to keep up with the competition and pursuit of the best talent, or if their efforts aren’t more about optics than about a commitment to equity and the tenants of inclusion. I’m pretty sure if I asked the CEOs of the Fortune 100 companies I’ve worked with if they felt their commitment to diversity was more about optics and appearances, all of them would take great offense. But given the struggle to make progress in representation numbers in all but a few sectors, this adage applies: “if you want to know where somebody really stands when it comes to commitment to DEI&B (Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging), look at their feet,” meaning judge them on what they are actually doing versus what they say they want to do.

Is taking a rushed, unmethodical approach to setting up a new diversity function wrong or bad given what’s happening in the world? My answer is “No”, even if the organization is late to engage or if their commitment feels tentative. Starting the process—however imperfect—has got to be better than doing nothing, right? Most of us in the corporate DE&I space have examples of ill-conceived or poorly executed diversity function launches that created scar tissue in the culture that took years to heal. To learn more about the dos and don’ts, I talked with a few of my CDO/diversity executive friends and colleagues about what they think executive teams need to consider when starting a diversity function, and what advice they would offer to the individuals who are placed in those positions. Here’s what I learned.

For executive teams and heads-of-entity:

  • CDOs or heads of diversity offices need to be not afraid to speak truth to power and to have the confidence to say what needs to be said. Change is not fun, so you have to be resilient and expect push-back and to be ready to apply the pressure, gently and at the right times. Being a member of an (underrepresented) group doesn’t qualify anyone for those sorts of jobs, even if we’ve got great leadership and people skills. You can start with someone like that, but they are going to need support to be successful. It’s always a team effort, and if they don’t get executive sponsorship and the resources to be successful, they will fail. There is a lot to know if you are in that role, especially when it comes to understanding the range of diversity dimensions, including Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, Accessibility, and Justice,” said Dr. Gena Davis of True Synergy, a consulting company that actually does outsourced Diversity function start-up and management for private clients in the entertainment industry and other sectors. ¹
  • Diversity chiefs need to develop and use their systems thinking skills to imbed diversity or “DEIBA&J.” It’s a multidisciplinary challenge involving change management, organizational development, professional and talent development, strategy, and execution. Setting priorities and connecting all of the actions into a coherent plan takes experience and practice.  

For example, I was brought in to deliver training to help a client engage senior leaders who were dominant group members of what the client called “non-diverse” leaders in an organization-wide inclusion effort. The client invested a lot of resources and energy into making sure everyone got a thorough and impactful introductory learning experience. As the last groups started to do the training, I was invited to a meeting with volunteers who had agreed to be “change champions” to help sustain the learning people got from the training. The executive sponsor attended the meeting and I could tell they were anxious by comments like, “We’ve invested a LOT of money in this,” and “People better start showing it was worth it.” In the meeting, we discovered that the training wasn’t linked to any tangible expectation or next step for the organization. The training was THE diversity strategy, period. The sponsor, DEI chief, and change champions all learned a valuable lesson: imbedding DEIBA&J needs to be composed of both events and internal activities that address the way people work, day-to-day.  

  • Avoid thinking that hiring a person or persons to work in diversity means that the executive team now doesn’t have responsibility for advancing it. The opposite is true; dedicating resources to diversity will only yield results if and when the executive team lives and breathes and behaves the espoused values of the organization with regard DEIBA&J. “We have a saying that applies to companies who do DEIBA&J effectively says Dr. Gena: ‘Make the company match the brand’ and we believe it.” 

For diversity chiefs, directors, or managers who were promoted from within: 

I asked Tanya Blackmon, the President of Auspen Consulting and the former Chief DE&I Officer of a large healthcare organization, to share what she knows.  Here are few of her gems:

  • Ask the executives, “What does that mean to you for us to ‘do’ diversity, equity, and inclusion?” Sometimes it really means, “Can you help us figure out what to do about important holidays like Black History Month, Cinco de Mayo, Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, and such?” Be prepared for their answers to be all over the map. It will give you a good idea of how you might be able to be an ally to them as they learn more about what you are doing.   
  • Set an intent and be ready for it to be a long-term journey. It’s important to take a long- term view of what you are doing and remember your ultimate intention, even if no one else does. You have to meet people where they are and realize that everyone moves on this journey at a different pace.” 
  • Be ready to encounter resistance and to expect and even invite it. If you don’t feel any resistance in your work, it may be because people have gone silent versus supporting DEIBA&J. I learned to view no resistance as a bad thing; it’s a totally natural reaction for people, especially if they are comfortable with the status quo. if you’re not feeling any resistance, chances are you’re not moving the culture.

Dr. Gena Davis offered a few great suggestions as well:

  • If possible, before taking the job, clarify the organization’s goals for creating a diversity function or office. The more specific you can make your questions the better. Here are a few ideas about what sorts of questions to ask.
    • What is the organization’s intent behind creating a diversity function?
    • How will we/you know if we are making progress and how will we be measuring it? 
    • What sort of financial resources is the company going to commit towards diversity?
    • How will the company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion be incorporated into the organization’s strategy?

Here are a few suggestions I’ve learned from others:

  • Go on a listening tour or set up listening circles to hear from as wide and diverse a set of employees as possible. This process gives you a chance to develop dialogue and rapport with a lot of people, which also helps them understand what you see as the diversity office’s role for the company. To do this, identify the key questions that you want to ask everybody. Tanya once told me her last listening tour encompassed feedback from over 700 employees (in small groups and individually) in an organization of over 10,000 people.
  • Form a diversity (or DEIBA&J) advisory council. They can become your board of directors of sorts and give you input and feedback in the direction, focus, and effectiveness of your department. Make sure the committee is composed of passionate key players, and don’t limit it to people who are thoroughly familiar with diversity, equity, and inclusion. If they are capable senior level professionals, they will learn their way into being an Advisory Council Member.

There is no one way to start and lead a DEI office or function, no prescribed or guaranteed formula. Each diversity chief has their own strengths, limitations, experience, and knowledge that they need to humbly and attentively pair with what they perceive the organization’s needs are. What’s clear is that the world is becoming more diverse, and companies who do DE&I effectively will have the competitive advantage. 

They already do.


¹ Remembering to use this long acronym “DEIBA&J” is another piece of advice I got from Dr. Gena. “If we’re going to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we can’t leave out access, which is such an important and overlooked element of diversity, both in society and in organizations. When we look at all of those different dimensions together, we create belonging, which is why we include the “B” and for progressive companies, even in the for-profit sector, “Justice” is becoming more and more important to them, especially the new Z demographic entering the workplace.”