Notably and historically missing from conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion are white men. This fact has proven especially true in corporate leadership, where the bulk of DEI work falls onto the shoulders of women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion matter for white men, too, but often, they don’t know how to move from paralysis to movement.

In our 25 years of inspiring white men to become full diversity partners, we know it’s because they don’t see themselves as being part of these conversations. Or, if they do, fear, shame and discomfort keep white men tip-toeing on the sidelines.

Yet, it’s possible – even deeply fulfilling and liberating – for white men to move from silence to activated privilege and responsibility in DEI as leaders, employers and coworkers. As the holders of the majority of the world’s leadership positions, white men can become keenly attuned to the influence and power they have to advance equity and inclusion. 

Image of a group of men and women having a friendly discussion.

At WMFDP | FDP Global, our cutting-edge learning opportunities empower leaders to step into the bold work of DEI and embrace challenging conversations without denying their identities. Connect with us to learn more about how our facilitators can support your entire team.

Privilege vs. Responsibility

Systemic racism and the entrenched patriarchal structure have established white men’s perspectives and experiences as the default, the most visible and the most valuable. This status quo centers the white male experience, allowing white men to remain neutral or disengaged on critical issues of diversity and inclusion.

Let’s be clear. White men have the privilege of staying silent, but they have a responsibility to speak up and be actively involved. Further, they have the right to be actively and consciously involved. White men aren’t outside of DEI.

Silence on crucial people issues signals complicity with the marginalization and harm that millions of people face in the workplace. At the very least, it undermines the ability for our workforces to feel a sense of belonging and contributes directly to problems of hiring and retention. At worst, it perpetuates the existing power imbalances and allows hurtful systemic inequities to persist. 

Why Are White Men Silent on DEI in the Workplace?

Image of white man alone at desk to present concept of being disengaged from other workers.

In this interview with China Jude, VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Denver Broncos, WMFDP | FDP Global co-founder Bill Proudman discusses a few of the reasons behind white men’s silence. He shares some of the top hurdles and challenges from his own journey and his decades of DEI work with corporate leaders around the globe.

1. The inability to “fix” a problem breeds silence.

Frequently, men tend to be solution-focused. They see a problem and want to fix it with actionable steps that have a beginning and end. If they can’t solve a problem, they may choose to avoid it, stay silent or hand it off to someone else.

The danger with this behavior regarding diversity and inclusion is that DEI can’t be “fixed.” There isn’t a one-and-done solution for any organization of any size because this work is continual and relies on ongoing conversations and learning. 

When white men acknowledge and internalize that fact, it alleviates the pressure to “solve” an unsolvable problem. They don’t have to leap immediately into strategy and implementation. Instead, they are free to break their silence by asking questions and seeking collaboration as they work toward moving the current inequitable systems.

2. When in doubt about DEI, white men go silent.

Image of confident white man standing in front of a group of office workers to indicate the privilege of staying silent in DEI.

For generations and generations, society has rewarded white boys and men for being confident and knowing the answers. For the most part, the leaders they see locally and globally are white and male. Representation looks and sounds like they do, and they’re frequently in situations where they have the opportunity to lead while others follow.

Now, society is showing and telling white men that they don’t have all the answers. When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, many white men feel nervous and afraid of making mistakes. It’s uncomfortable not to know the answers. 

Staying silent is an effective defense mechanism against potential vulnerability and embarrassment, but it’s a defense mechanism that other groups don’t have the privilege to utilize.

Jude and Proudman discuss the need for white men to have a beginner’s mindset when tackling DEI issues. As the traditional insiders in leadership, white men need to become aware and curious enough to examine all the other lived experiences around them. Not in silence, but in active community and inquiry. 

Image of white woman talking to group at an office.

This path of curiosity doesn’t require anyone to have all the answers, but it does require us to speak up and be vocal, not silent. Asking an uncomfortable question from a place of authenticity and a desire to do better can never be as harmful as silence. 

3. A lack of “expertise” fosters silence. 

Many white men have had a lifetime of being told they are good at things. By and large, their privilege has afforded them opportunities to learn, practice and refine all kinds of skills, from sports to finance to business, gaining mastery and expertise. Additionally, many men in the business world have learned that if they aren’t experts at something, they should delegate and outsource that particular task.

Then along comes DEI work, and white men are typically the least-qualified persons in the room to speak to these issues. 

Rather than become uncomfortable and vulnerable enough to reveal their lack of knowledge or understanding, they outsource. Suddenly employees of color receive the “opportunity” to speak and train their coworkers about diversity and inclusion. They might have the “honor” of organizing and coordinating affinity celebrations and recognition.

Image of Black woman training people on Zoom.

Let’s call out that practice for what it is. It’s putting the burden of educating the insiders onto the shoulders of the outsiders. It’s harmful and allows white leadership to remain silent and absent from any meaningful work.

No one of any race, gender or another identity can be an expert on someone else’s lived experiences. White men aren’t alone in that. But each of us can speak from authenticity and – this is crucial – do our own work. Don’t wait until you’re an expert because you won’t be. 

Read. Study. Listen. Ask questions. And don’t expect marginalized groups to spend their time and energy educating you. Do your own work to know how and why to speak up and intervene when necessary. Do the work so that you can be a vocal advocate and ally rather than a silent observer. Expertise isn’t the goal of DEI efforts. Authentic movement forward is the goal.

DEI Flows Like Water

Diversity and inclusion efforts need to be ongoing and multi-pronged to fill all the nooks and crannies of your organization the way water fills its container. DEI work is not a solution; it’s a mindset.

Continual learning allows white men move past the privilege to stay silent in DEI.

As comfortable as silence can feel when you’re uncertain and lacking expertise, it isn’t a viable path forward. Silence is a privilege that women, people of color and those in the LGBTQ+ community don’t have. It signals an implicit acceptance of inequities, harming your organization to its core.

Bold, vocal leadership combats generations of systemic racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia and lets you lead across differences. The WMFDP | FDP Global facilitators empower you with the tools needed to ask uncomfortable questions and hear uncomfortable answers. Without shame or blame, we equip you to establish and grow a diverse workforce to enhance every level of your organization.

Contact us today to learn more about our virtual and in-person events.