By Lor N. Lee, Director, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Mayo Clinic I don’t know Lor. What do I have to offer to the... Do White Men Have a Role to Play in D&I?

By Lor N. Lee, Director, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Mayo Clinic

Businessmen Working On Computer In Office

I don’t know Lor. What do I have to offer to the work of diversity and inclusion?”

“I’m just going to not mentor any women because I don’t want to be accused of sexual harassment when behind closed doors.”

These are only two of the kinds of statements I hear when talking to white male colleagues who want to help advance people of color and women but don’t know how or are afraid. Whatever the reason for their hesitation, the result is that they end up staying on the sidelines. In a 2017 Ernst and Young survey, approximately 35 percent of respondents reported that they felt the growing conversation around diversity and inclusion tends to overlook white men and the role they play in advancing this work.

Yes, white men still hold a majority of corporate C-suite and other leadership roles, but the people who make up their teams are becoming more and more racially and gender diverse. Due to changing demographics, and organizations giving more air time, effort, and energy to advancing diversity and inclusion, “white normativity is being challenged, and not only on one front, but on four: political, economic, cultural, and demographic,” according to Tim Wise in his book Dear White America. Wise goes on to explain that the narrative whites—especially white men—grew up knowing is being redefined and retold from perspectives that challenge their norms.

As diversity and inclusion practitioners, we know that when implementing D&I initiatives, there will be challenges to and conflicts surrounding what we are trying to accomplish. It is crucial that we do not alienate white men in this work or we’ll find ourselves facing pretty powerful opposition. We need to understand these challenges and address the conflicts if we want to be successful in our efforts. Here are three ways we can better work with white men to achieve our D&I goals—and theirs:

1. No shame. No blame.

We must engage white men in the conversation around diversity and inclusion, but not shame and blame them for “getting us here.” It is our role as D&I practitioners to help them listen to and understand the concerns of the people of color and women on their teams. It is our role to help them see that it is not their fault, but that it is our collective responsibility to do things differently. When we drive a car, we know that there are many blind spots we must remember to check. It is our role as D&I practitioners to help white men become aware of their blind spots and do a better job of checking them when they are making big, important decisions.

2. What’s in it for them?

I often hear the following: “Of course I want to create inclusive teams, but that means we are spending time away from our core work,” and “How does focusing on diversity and inclusion help advance my own career?” There is a lot of confusion as to the real value and impact D&I efforts have, especially when “things have been fine for the last 100-plus years.” Using quantifiable measures helps leaders demonstrate that their efforts to build inclusive teams lead to improved employee retention and lower recruitment costs, which result in an improved bottom line and greater customer satisfaction. Leaders who achieve these results will be seen as more effective. That’s what’s in it for them.

3. Engage them in leading D&I efforts.

One great way to do this is to tap white male leaders in your organization to be executive sponsors of Employee Resource Groups. If they can start to build work relationships, gain confidence, and see how those who look different from themselves can be successful, they are more likely to see employees of color and women as people they can mentor, promote, and sponsor.

Once white male leaders in your organization are engaged in and excited about this work, you have created allies! This is the BIGGEST role that white men can play in advancing diversity and inclusion. Once they feel they can use their own voices, power, and stature to champion change, your work is well underway.

Lor N. Lee

Lor N. Lee

Administrator/ Director Of Diversity and Inclusion at Mayo Clinic. He has over 18 years of experience in leadership positions with responsibilities for the development and implementation of diversity, inclusion and cultural competence initiatives.

  • Stephen Day

    October 9, 2019 #1 Author

    This is an important article. I have been mentoring Economically Disadvantaged Woman Owned Small Businesses (EDWOSBs) and 8As for a very long time. Failure to get involved is a sign of cowardice and fear. Fear of not being accepted by a minority or fear of a potential male/female conflict is just too ridiculous to ignore. I am a WHITE MAN and a Southerner, and I refuse to be limited in my relationships with any race, religion, or gender. I do think I have some good experiences to share with anyone, whether a start up business owner or an employee strifing to climb the corporate ladder.
    The question is not how a minority reacts to you as a Caucasian male but,rather, how do you relate to that person. If you are mentoring or advising as a charity case, then you really should NOT waste their time. But if you can see anyone, from any ethnicity or any economic station as a worthy person, then you should be able to share and assist.
    First, you must learn who they are as equal people worthy of your respect. Being an advisor can be hard work, and not everything that you suggest will be followed. Business startups and corporate career paths are NEVER linear. Be there with joy when they reach success. More importantly, be there when circumstances become challenging. Always remember, it is their journey; not yours. Be loyal and be steadfast. You will likely discover that the person most helped is yourself.


  • Joe Olwig

    November 11, 2020 #2 Author

    I find this awesome that this was written in August 2019. As a white male Technology Leader in sales for over 20 yrs, I must admit that the Black Lives Matter movement has caused me to Make a Change in my personal and professional career! Education is my path to change! Thank you. [email protected] is the largest Black owned business in the USA. #veryproudwwt'er


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