What They’re Missing
By Michael Kaufman
. Dear male corporate leader,
I won’t mention your name, but I recently heard you comment how white men in corporate leadership are losing out to diversity. Your comment was greeted with howls of protest. You said you meant it as a joke.
I actually believe you because I’ve heard the exact same “joke” far too many times.
I wish I had a minute to sit down with you to talk about why I, as a man, and a white man to boot, have been concerned for many years when I hear comments like that one. But, since I don’t have that opportunity, let me share these thoughts with you.
First, the idea is based on a faulty, even if implicit, premise. The premise is that board rooms (along with halls of government, leadership bodies in unions, professional associations, and places of worship) belong to men and, especially, men with a certain skin tone, religion, sexual orientation, and accent. When others arrive, it’s seen as a threat to the natural order of things. Even though I’m sure you didn’t mean it, the joke would suggest to many people that women and people of color were either benevolently admitted by people who look like you and me, or they have somehow invaded our God-given spaces.
One implication of this premise is that if we diversify our leadership bodies, the new arrivals often feel immense pressure to adopt the same leadership styles as their (male) predecessors in order to be listened to and respected.
Second, the joke ignores history. Men, after all, have benefitted from an 8,000-year-long affirmative action policy. That policy is called patriarchy. Even though the vast majority of men have not received the keys to board rooms, male-dominated societies have given all men, to one degree or another, forms of privilege and power that women don’t enjoy. It’s what Peggy McIntosh, talking about white privilege, has called an invisible knapsack full of keys and passwords that let some of us in the door.
Of course, this gets much more complicated because our societies are not only based on the power of men over women, but of some groups of men over other groups of men, and so forth.
My third concern is how your joke makes me feel as a man. The joke is a nudge-nudge, wink-wink to other men. The assumption is that we all feel the same concern that we’re going to be screwed by the march of women’s rights and greater diversity in leadership positions.
"Men, after all, have benefitted from an 8,000-year-long affirmative action policy. That policy is called patriarchy."
But I have to tell you, I’m totally thrilled by these changes. True, I increasingly have to compete with the whole human race for jobs and the airwaves. But my love for the women in my life—my wife and daughter, my sisters and friends, my mother when she was alive, my female workmates—easily trumps any sense of loss I could possibly feel. Along with a rapidly increasing number of other men, I’m deeply concerned about the second-class status women still face; I’m equally concerned about the violence that far too many women experience at home and the harassment they experience at work. And I’m terrified when I see men who want to take away the victories and the hard-won rights achieved by the women I care about. I hope you feel the same.
And as a white person, especially in this political environment, I have the same thoughts about the importance of the fight against racism. Even if I don’t personally benefit (although if I had more space, I’d argue that I do), many other people will benefit by achieving equal rights and respect and, for many of us, that is argument enough.
There’s another reason why I as a man am totally thrilled by the victories of women, including increases (even if coming much too slowly) in leadership roles. That’s because I’ve long believed that feminism is the greatest gift that men have ever received. That, too, would be a long argument—and it’s something I’ve written and spoken about for the past three-and-a-half decades—but believe me, we men will be far better off in a world where we have jettisoned our current assumptions about what it takes to be a man and when we can live and work in true partnership with women.
My fourth concern is much more practical. I believe strongly that a society’s organizations should look like the society itself. They should not only reflect diverse interests and needs, but, literally, their leadership teams and managers should look like the people they serve.
Luckily, an increasing number of businesses are starting to realize there is a strong business case for diversity on boards and in all levels of management. Such a business will better understand the needs of its diverse clientele and workforce—and that leads to greater success.
Well, there we go. Do get in touch if you’d like to share a word about this.
Michael Kaufman is the author of eight books and has worked with the UN, governments, and corporations for three decades to engage men to promote gender equality. His website is www.michaelkaufman.com.