Around 60% of white men believe they will be overlooked for promotion as a result of diversity initiatives, according to research by EY. And two-thirds of those men believe diversity has no business correlation at all.

When those figures emerged, I was speaking on a panel of very senior women and put forward the idea that we are failing to bring such “privileged” groups with us – and that is contributing to stalling the move towards inclusion and increased diversity in our organizations. The response from one incredibly senior woman was that men have had it their own way for years and now women are “starting to win” and that is terrifying them. As a feminist, I could understand where she was coming from – but, as a cultural change specialist, I just couldn’t agree with her. I’ve never known a culture change work where we haven’t taken the privileged group with us – and I believe it is absolutely true for diversity and inclusion initiatives too.

Interestingly, the next night I was giving a speech on men’s mental health and inclusion – as part of International Men’s Day – and talking about how the statistics for suicide among male white-collar workers are horrific. I also pointed out that when we look at the environments we are expecting them to work in – and how we are expecting them to pretend to behave in those environments to be accepted – we are sending confusing and biased messages. On the one hand we’re telling them to create an open environment, ensure wellbeing for all, listen – and, on the other hand, keep doing the 80-hour week, show no weakness, be competitive.

Privilege but Responsibility

I gave the audience an exercise to do that asked them to consider who taught them to be a man – and the feedback was both moving and insightful, and it cut across all generations. When you are raised to believe that you will be the provider, that there is some strange privilege that you have but also some responsibility that you carry, when you are expected to be big and strong and powerful, and expected to know the answers and be able to mend things, and you turn out to be someone who is the diametric opposite of that – or even not quite making the grade – you have the same experience of not fitting in and not being good enough that an awful lot of the minority groups have.  We have created an environment where men can pretend and hide more easily – but it’s still as damaging.  

So many men came to me that night, some with tears rolling down their faces, and said nobody had ever asked them to think about that before – but now they had, they could see why they had actually been unhappy at work for years.

So what do we do about this? We certainly have to keep calling out the research that says we are not bringing the privileged group with us and the reasons why. We need to wind into this the work of psychologist Robin DiAngelo who calls out what she calls “white fragility” – looking at defensive over-reactions to race-based criticism stemming from a lack of racial stamina. What she basically says is the white men in our world have not been asked to think carefully about their identity. Whereas if you are in a minority group, you are constantly having your identity called out.

Criticizing my Tribe

At the point we call this out, people are shocked. So if men are in a conference and hear feedback about the way men have behaved, for example, or hear mansplaining called out, then their reaction is to think “ouch” you are now criticizing the group that I am part of – my tribe – and although outwardly they’ll make a supportive comment and maybe commit to not do it again, inwardly they are thinking: “Hang on a minute, you are hitting at the very essence of me and that which I have striven to behave like over my lifetime, and that hurts.” The answer to this is, of course, creating conversations that are inclusive for everyone. Having those privileged groups understand what it’s really like for minorities by experiencing some of that isn’t a bad thing, but we also have to understand what it’s like for them and be prepared to stop and listen.

When we strive to create inclusive workplaces, we also introduce the need to be vulnerable. And, actually, members of the power groups in our organizations are vulnerable every time they develop a new strategy, every time they fire someone, every time they make a decision. Sometimes, though, that vulnerability is hidden – and when it is hidden, it actually makes them susceptible to more biased decisions. To create an environment of belonging for everyone, we have to uncover the deep and hidden fear of admitting to vulnerability and be prepared to bring that conversation very much to the fore.

An Uphill Battle

We also need to increase the practical support that we specifically offer to men – and we need to shout about it. Men are increasingly taking on more childcare responsibilities, for example, in the wake of relationship breakdowns. But levels of workplace support and flexibility for men to accommodate school drop-offs and pick-ups or coping with a sick child vary greatly – and men often face more of an uphill battle in such situations than their female colleagues.

Overall, we have to create an inclusive workplace where everyone with the capability to excel can do so.  That capability – and the perception of that capability – may change at certain times in people’s lives. But if our expectation of men in the workplace is that they have to be the same all the time, constantly delivering great work and not being vulnerable to what’s going on at home, we are not creating that environment. We are actually doing the opposite and possibly driving their support below ground.


  • Angela Peacock

    Global Director of Diversity and Inclusion

    PDT Global, part of Affirmity

    Angela Peacock has spent the last 20 years of her career working across the global business sector – from Asia to North America, Europe and South Africa – developing and supporting companies and leaders with their corporate strategies and leadership development. During the last 10 years she and her team have specialized in creating the sorts of inclusive environments where everyone can be heard and excel. She is passionate about getting organizations to understand the link between the creation of inclusion, the achievement of tangible business results and the need to link it back to the people agenda. Angela has a strong reputation in the global inclusion arena and has worked with boards and C-suites across many firms from State Street to Microsoft, Fidelity to Accenture, Lloyds of London to the National Basketball Association. She is an inspiring speaker – using storytelling, hard facts and her history to ensure her messages hit home and are remembered long after the workshop has ended.