Majority voices must also be heard

Patrick Voss

Patrick Voss

Patrick Voss, MD at diversity and inclusion (D&I) consultancy Impetus and Momentum cautions over how a push for greater diversity may see these groups feeling side-lined.

The basis for much of the focus on D&I in the UK to date has been rooted in legislation that has been put into place to avoid discrimination against different unrepresented groups. The protected characteristics covered by the Equalities Act include age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation.

The impact of the Act hasn’t, however been purely about avoiding discrimination, it is also used to support the drive for greater representation at all levels. More recently, we’ve also witnessed a rise in social movements driving change too.  At both global and local levels, campaigns borne from injustice such as the #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements have also influenced corporate thinking. Welcome changes are also afoot too in how we perceive and manage mental health, wellbeing, neurodiversity, social mobility and belonging as well – which reach further across a broad range of employees.

But what about majority voices?

As you can see, there is a lot happening in the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) space around avoiding discrimination and improving representation. So how does this all work in practice? Particularly if you don’t class yourself as part of a minority or underrepresented group? Take white, straight males for example. For many, they will be in industries where there is a D&I focus, but whilst things may not yet have changed much in the day to day, there is a high chance the rhetoric has. And they are often in positions of power to both hire and influence the career prospects of colleagues.

The unspoken impact in practice? It needs to be about growth.

If you asked most people, it is pretty difficult to argue against that fact that striving for greater representation is a positive thing to do. But from a purely practical perspective, it’s important to think through how this works. Let’s say there are 100 people in your company and of those, 70 are currently men, and 30 are women. When management talks about the importance of gender balance and representation across the business, if the business is hiring then there is plenty of opportunity to hire more females. If the business isn’t hiring, the unspoken message is that any new roles, or promotions might be tilted towards female candidates and by default the majority (white, men in many organisations) will lose out. Of course, for individual candidates this might not play out quite like this, but if the message about the importance of representation is constantly flagged as a priority, the potential impact on the majority will not be missed.

This example is backed up by findings from a study by the University of California at Santa Barbara who found that as well as diversity programmes making white men feel threatened, many participants also felt diversity initiatives would diminish the opportunities that were available to them.

Whatever firms state about hiring the right person for the job, if management also sets out a course for greater representation then an unspoken perception is that there are fewer opportunities for the majority – unless firms are clear this is about growth for the future.

Understanding how the majority feel – the good, bad and ugly

Making an effort to understand the perspectives of the white male majority is really important. As is true when developing most business strategies, without any insight to support you to make decisions, means you’ll struggle to understand how your majority population feels.

The first step is to ask. But not just in surveys that prompt to rank the importance of D&I initiatives for example. Really engage with them. Ask them what they think about the topic; for thoughts on key concepts; find out what they are aware of that they buy into and where they see challenges – or even fundamentally disagree – with the thinking.

A few thoughts to consider:

  • Host sessions solely for the white male majority, where you are clear that they are allowed to express the views they wish. Using a skilled facilitator, this may bring up a range of views, but it will at least allow frustrations and perceptions to be shared and discussed. Don’t be afraid to tackle head on reservations and questions that come up from the group regarding their concerns about D&I efforts (for example the potential lack of future opportunities for them).
  • Have groups think through different ways of thinking about D&I. Instead of labelling inclusive hiring against a backdrop of ‘privilege’ for example, explore how this allows them to develop leadership skills to understand and therefore get the most from working with colleagues from a range of backgrounds and experiences
  • Consider presenting different scenarios (and the impact) of ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups in social/non-work environments and then reflect on the relevance to situations in the workplace and whether participants feel they are more or less likely to include people in either situation.
  • Change up the narrative – Identify opportunities to learn from inclusion themselves and become better leaders. Also – be sure to save insights from all sessions to support you in planning ahead and later reflect on what you are hearing and build stronger engagement from your white males for change.

As with any business planning, if you don’t have clear research and insight, you’ll likely be stabbing in the dark as you come up with D&I plans to make things happen – including realising where you real blockers might be. Start by engaging and understanding who your detractors, persuadables and true believers are.  And then make plans for each.

Give majority groups the opportunity to feed into the D&I conversation and allow debate to happen. Views cannot be understood and challenged if you force these underground – and you may then find you have hidden blockers to progress across the organisation.

Rethinking your communications to ensure D&I narratives exist for all groups within the organisation, not just those who are underrepresented, will really help you to ensure everyone feels bought in. It’s a case of listening and developing a clear narrative on what you mean when you say D&I and in particular, what inclusion means for everyone.