Why We Must Include Straight, White Men in D&I Discussions
The challenges surrounding D&I are varied and different and require all of our contributions.
In order to create a fully diverse and inclusive environment in a workplace, committee, or society, the conversation must include everyone, but often, it is one ‘majority’ — the straight white males — who are excluded. A diversity and inclusion initiative that strives to truly improve and promote equality cannot thrive without the contributions and efforts of the majority. Last week, Nicholas Mazzei addressed this paradox and gave his insight on how the problem can be ameliorated.
This talk was a part of a monthly event series run by DINT, a free online community created to enable connections and increase conversations about diversity and inclusion in tech. It took place inside the virtual reality Teooh application. If you’re interested in joining the DINT community, click here.
In his December 3rd talk, Nicholas spoke to individuals who felt outside the D&I conversations, and he gave them a place to address concerns, ask questions, and engage in conversations about difficult, and sometimes taboo, discussions. In 2006, Nick spent a year at Sandhurst before his first posting in Northern Ireland. In this position, he was ‘voluntold’ (as he creatively put it) that he would serve as the equality and diversity advisor for the other soldiers. After a career in the army stationed in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Northern Ireland, Nick worked for BT in the corporate affairs team as a corporate responsibility lead. While working in corporate responsibility, he was chosen as the chair of BT’s gender equality network. He has worked to promote greater take-up of extended paternity leave policies, held events with prominent female MPs encouraging more women to get involved in politics, and written for The Times on both culture and politics.
As someone who was clearly successful in entering and contributing to the diversity and inclusion conversation, one might mistakenly think that Nick was a rare exclusion to the unspoken ‘no straight white men in D&I talks’ rule. In reality, though, Nick found it difficult at times to enter and encourage conversation, and he recommends the following lessons both to those similar to him — men who want to join the D&I conversation — and to those who may find themselves subconsciously excluding their masculine counterparts from a necessary conversation.
For the Boys — Lessons for Joining the D&I Conversation as a Straight, White Man
Get to Know ‘Them’
Nick was the nominated officer to talk about equality and diversity with the soldiers in his brigade, and when we asked him if it was a problem that he was a white man trying to teach other white men about equality and diversity, his answer was a wholehearted ‘yes’. Between addressing concerns about transexual soldiers, discussing questions about maternity leave, and working to overcome widespread issues with Islamophobia and racism, Nick found that his initial lack of experience influenced his own ignorance on the subject:
‘It’s very hard when you’re in that environment because you think you’re not racist or sexist in any way and you spend all your time with white men from a relatively similar background…That was the challenge, that we weren’t getting exposure to enough people that weren’t “us”’.
Thus, Nick’s initial suggestion, although it may seem obvious, is perhaps one of the most important ways to break into the D&I conversation — be willing to get to know people who aren’t like you.
Nick described a time in which he was practically told that he shouldn’t be a part of the diversity and inclusion conversation. Before he became chair, he attended an event with the gender equality network and asked the speaker, ‘so what can I do as a guy to help women out more within my organisation?’…a fair question. Rather than appreciating his efforts or respecting his desire to help, the speaker admonished him for trying to tell women what to do. Nick explained that rather than being offended by the speaker’s negative attitude towards his presence, he was encouraged to get more involved so that he could really contribute. However, it’s not difficult to see how this occasion could have turned him off from joining the conversation altogether.
And this is not uncommon — straight, white men are often seen as the negative perpetrators of inequality, and when they try to join the conversation and make a beneficial change, they are excluded. This, understandably, alienates them from the conversation, pushing efforts backwards and decreasing progress. While it is the responsibility of everyone in a workplace to include even the majority in their D&I discussions, men can be resilient when they are faced with exclusion. Nick encourages people to take any alienation not as a reason to leave the conversation, but as a catalyst for joining it and reducing exclusion in D&I initiatives. (After all, inclusion is in the name.)
It’s Your Job Too — Lessons for How to Include Straight, White Men
Because straight, white men are often seen as the ‘problem’ or the ‘them’ in Diversity and Inclusion conversations, they are often excluded and expected to fight an uphill battle to join the discussion. This is counterproductive and hypocritical — it is the job of those in D&I conversations to lower the barrier of entry so that anyone can contribute to the conversation and further the initiative.
Alter the Lexicon
One very simple answer to enabling the majority to join the conversation is to alter the lexicon of D&I conversations and events. Rather than having discussions aimed toward one gender or one race, have general discussions that engage all genders and races:
You can make these things more attractive by including ‘inclusion’ in the title. It’s gotta be inclusive. Everyone has to be involved in the conversation. That means including people who are going to have differing opinions to you as well. This space is risky for men to step into because they don’t want to get into trouble by saying something wrong.
Rather than automatically jumping to judgements when someone says something that does not follow the most recent or most politically correct lexicon, guide him or her politely in the direction of the correct lexicon. This should come from a place of respect and understanding, rather than an automatic assumption that the person was intending to be offensive, racist, or sexist. Give people who are new to the conversation the benefit of the doubt, and don’t exclude them due to naivety or lack of awareness. Instead, use it as an opportunity to engage someone new in the D&I conversation.
Hearing ‘all women are the same’ or ‘all Asians are the same’ is incredibly offensive…so why do we allow the same judgements for straight, white men? And why would a straight, white man want to get involved in a discussion that sees them as the same as others like them? Nick suggests an intelligent solution to this issue:
We have to shift the dials of inclusion and therefore we really have to think about people as broader pictures than just a black-and-white image of a statistical demographic. With that in mind, in order to get a broader number of men joining, there’s got to be something for them in a diversity and inclusion debate and discussion, and that means that things have to recognise that a lot of men don’t have it very good at all. One of the things we found very effective at BT’s gender equality network was that we tried to change the discussion with men from just listening and changing themselves. We tried to get them to be ‘change agents’ — to say to them that they should help change the picture for everybody; don’t just think that you yourself have to change, try to think of ways that you can create a better work culture and space for these discussions and be more interested in these people when they try to include you in these discussions.
Without risking contributing to the very tired and increasingly ironic ‘#NotAllMen’ expression, it is important to consider that every individual is different, and in order to advance any D&I discussion, it is necessary to discard homogenised stereotypes.
Nick also mentioned a recent publication by psychologist Philip Zimbardo entitled Man, Interrupted: Why Young Men are Struggling and What We Can Do About It. This book discussed how video games and pornography disturb the brain’s reward centres, particularly in young men. Because virtual worlds enable rewards to be gained quickly, it has been found that young men are increasingly finding real-world challenges very difficult, and they are struggling to form relationships, work hard, and create genuine connections. The issues that Zimbardo raises are a good representation of the issues that the modern world brings for men, which in turn heavily impacts women, especially in the West. These are largely unknown issues, and we must consider the broader context of why inclusion isn’t necessarily shifting.
In order to truly be ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’, initiatives need to focus efforts on engaging people regardless of their race, sexual orientation, gender, etc… and, yes, that means including straight, white, men.
If you’re keen to join future DINT events, check out https://www.joinit.org/o/dint. We look forward to seeing you at our next event!