Addressing Some Obstacles Keeping Men From Embracing Diversity and Inclusion at Work

Working with men in various companies on issues of diversity and inclusion, we’ve found that they fall generally into five categories:

  1. Men who feel threatened by diversity and inclusion efforts.
  2. Men who feel left out – often because they believe that focusing on concerns of marginalized or targeted groups ignores their own issues.
  3. Men who are afraid to say or do the wrong thing.
  4. Men who want to be part of the solution but don’t know how.
  5. Men who are outspoken advocates and allies.

Men in the first and third group often cite #MeToo, the reaction to Harvey Weinstein et al., fear of being brought to HR or even being sued. In other words, men in these groups often take the position of being a victim of (particularly women’s) “over-sensitivity,” “overreacting,” and general litigiousness.

Feeling threatened, left out, or intimidated by diversity and inclusion efforts is rooted in pernicious ignorance. Men in the workplace simply don’t experience the pain that women do and are blind to it, so it becomes a case of out of sight, out of mind.

The first three positions are rooted not in malintent, but rather in a pernicious ignorance. Men in the workplace simply don’t experience the pain that women do and are blind to it, so it becomes a case of out of sight, out of mind.

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An example comes to mind from several years ago. At the time, I was working for a client in a major city. While there, I stayed in a business-class hotel about four blocks from the client’s offices and walked to work. During one aspect of the project, I teamed with a female colleague who stayed at the same hotel.

About a month later we had a second engagement and she stayed in a hotel quite a bit further away, one where she had to take a cab to get to work. Naturally, I asked why, and she explained that she didn’t feel comfortable or safe walking the four blocks from the previous hotel – the area felt sketchy to her. Upon reflection, it felt sketchy to me also, but I ignored the sketchy elements and just walked.

Her explanation of her experience to me was eye-opening. Not that it opened my eyes, but that it opened the opportunity to look a the world through hers. The next few times I walked those four blocks, I made a conscious effort to look through the eyes of a woman, dressed for business, not very big or strong looking, and walking alone along that street. I was amazed at what I saw.

These issues are real. Just because men don’t experience them can’t mean they should be disregarded.

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As for men who feel like diversity and inclusion efforts make men the victim of other’s “over-sensitivity,” it is on some level very human, when we hurt or offend someone, to protest our intent – “I didn’t mean it,” “I was just joking,” “I didn’t realize.”

But we should note that in protesting or defending our intent, what we are also doing is making it the other’s problem – they took it wrong, they can’t take a joke, they are too sensitive.

We are seeking to make them responsible for the emotional impact of our actions. And that’s unfair.

In the words of the old adage, “Your right to swing your arms ends at my nose.” That is, if I’m swinging my arms around, and I end up hitting you in the nose, I don’t get to say I have a perfect right to swing my arms and your nose shouldn’t have been there!

It is human, when we hurt or offend someone, to protest our intent – “I didn’t mean it,” “I was just joking,” “I didn’t realize.” But in protesting or defending our intent, we unfairly make the other person responsible for the emotional impact of our actions.

This should leave us asking the question: “Who gets to say?”

If I offend you, which is more important, my intention or my impact?

I would argue it’s clearly the impact – my intention may be all well and good, and it may speak to my character, but words can hurt, and if mine hurt you, that is more important to me than my intention.

Dominant groups often want to tell marginalized groups to “Just get over it,” or “Don’t be so sensitive,” but should a person in a target group have to answer to one in the privileged group?

As a member of the privileged group, I don’t think its my place to question the safety needs of any targeted group, and if I want a better understanding of what they are asking for and why they need it I need to listen to what they have to say in the first place.

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So where does this leave men who are threatened or frightened by women claiming their power to determine how they are treated?

My three suggestions would be:

(a) Recognize that, through no choice of our own, we have privilege and advantages that are rooted in millennia of culture,

(b) Examine our intent. Are we out to have empowering, collaborative relationships with women, or are we committed to treating women as sexual objects and a danger to our fragile masculinity?; and

(c) Resolve to take on new actions and practices, including cleaning it up when we make mistakes, which inevitably we will.


Photo Credit: Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution License (Thomas8047)

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