Calling All White Men (to Diversity Training)

A new study finds that training efforts directed at white males in the workplace can produce a measurable shift in their attitudes and behavior around the topic of "white-male privilege".

Monday, August 20, 2012
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Want to know what you should do to truly make a dent in diversity and workplace-culture improvements?

According to a recent study from New York-based Catalyst, you should rev up your diversity training among your organization's white males.

Though critics have long debated whether training could really make corporate cultures dominated by white men more inclusive, Catalyst says in its report, these results show "training [white males] can produce a measurable shift in workplace attitudes and behavior -- and begin to create an environment where women and minorities can advance."

The study, Calling All White Men: Can Training Help Create Inclusive Workplaces? sent white-male managers of Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation's North American sales division to learning labs that were focused solely on the role of white men in diversity efforts.

According to the report, the men were studied before the lab, one month later and then four months after that, and showed improvements in five different measurements: critical thinking about differences, taking responsibility for being inclusive, inquiring across differences, empathetic listening and addressing difficult or emotionally charged issues.

In an interview with Melissa J. Anderson of, a professional women's support blog and online community, Jeanine Prime, Catalyst's vice president of research, said she "was really surprised that there was measurable change in such a short time frame."

"At each survey point," Prime told Anderson, "we found participants were really making improvements in their behaviors, and increasingly acknowledged white-male privilege."

Some key findings of the study include:

* An increase in workplace civility and decline in gossip (e.g., snide remarks and behind-the-back comments). In some work groups, participants' colleagues rated the incidence of workplace gossip as much as 39 percent lower after the labs, signaling improved communication and respect.

* Managers were more likely to acknowledge that inequities exist. After the labs, there was a 17 percent increase in how much managers agreed that white men have greater advantages than women and racial/ethnic minorities.

* Having cross-racial friendships mattered. Managers without many prior cross-racial relationships changed the most after the labs when it came to thinking critically about different social groups -- a 40- percent increase in ratings versus a 9-percent increase for those with more of these relationships.

* Those who cared the least about exhibiting prejudice changed the most. After the labs, managers who initially were the least concerned about appearing prejudiced were the ones who registered the most significant change in taking personal responsibility for being inclusive, as evidenced by a 15 percent increase in ratings.

"Companies can see a major shift in inclusive behavior when white men acknowledge inequalities and accept that, while they didn't cause the problem, it's their responsibility as leaders to be part of the solution," says Ilene H. Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst.

"We can't rely only on women and minorities to advocate for culture change," Lang says. "The results are much more powerful when white men, who are most often in leadership positions, are also role models."

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Larry Turner, a partner in Morgan Lewis' labor and employment group in Philadelphia and co-chair of the firm's diversity committee, says he finds "the general conclusion [of the study to be] sound."

"White males," he says, "need to be involved in the discussion about -- and implementation of -- diversity. All business leaders, regardless of their hue, need to be able to motivate their workforce. They must understand and be able to communicate a sense of genuine respect for all of the cultures within their working environment.

Turner says more companies need to include white men in the dialogue about diversity, as well as in the design and implementation of diversity efforts.

Doing this, he says, "will only increase the ultimate effectiveness of the diversity effort and their working environment."

That the program used in the Catalyst study could produce such a shift, Prime said in her glasshammer interview, "is a testament to the approach."

"It's not about shaming or blaming white men," she said, "but calling them to leadership and inviting them to play a central role in creating inclusive environments."

It's often implicit in the diversity strategies of some organizations, Prime said, "that white men are framed as the problem. I think it's important for [them] to hear that, while they are not responsible for inequality, they do have a responsibility to take an active role in creating an inclusive work environment."

Prime also said diversity training works best when it's framed around leadership more than the differences between employees. "It's not just about helping women or people from diverse backgrounds," she said. "It's really about fundamental leadership skills. The people who went to the labs [as part of the study] felt they were better leaders because of it."

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