Holding White Male Executives Accountable for Diversity and Inclusion

By Alex Nesbitt

I’m a white man who has spent most of my career advising executive teams at large companies across America. When I started over three decades ago, these teams were almost always comprised of other white men. While most leaders I work with support diversity and inclusion, and the companies these executives lead have dedicated increasing amounts of resources to make diversity and inclusion work, the pace of change has been agonizingly slow: Only 43 of the Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies have female CEOs, according to the 2020 Crist|Kolder Associates report on C-suite turnover. The numbers for ethnic and racial CEO diversity are even more disappointing, with only 23 Hispanic/Latino CEOs and 5 Black CEOs.

Workforces are becoming much more diverse at junior levels, executive team diversity is another story. Female representation on US-based executive teams was only 21 percent in 2019. According to a recent report, it will take US companies 29 years to reach gender parity at the executive level based on the current rate of progress. Even more troubling is the lack of ethnic and racial representation on executive teams, particularly the lack of women of color who represent 18 percent of entry-level employees yet only represent 3 percent of the C-Suite.

To compound the issue, the gender diversity we have achieved has been heavily skewed towards staff executives. Sixty-five percent of female executives are responsible for staff functions like Human Resources, Diversity and Inclusion, and General Counsel. Only a third of female executives occupy the P&L, operational or financial roles that account for 90% of new CEO appointments.

Why aren’t we making more progress on executive team diversity? And why is the diversity we have achieved so heavily skewed towards staff jobs that don’t provide the experience or qualifications necessary to reach a CEO position?

Hiring and training diverse talent is a starting point, but it is not enough. We need to create environments that value difference, where everyone can truly give their best without significant discomfort or social risk. To speed up progress on creating environments that value difference, successful white men need to see the problem that is invisible to many of them, even when it is observable by others. We need to recognize that what feels normal, natural, and right to us doesn’t feel normal, natural, and right to everyone.

As white men, we are so embedded within the social context we have known since birth and have understood as a meritocracy that we don’t consider when others must conform with what we find normal, they might find that same normal to be unusual and unsettling. In this normal, the prototypical line executive is noticeable, assertive, acts and speaks with great confidence, claims credit for results, and puts work first. These are all traits our society encourages white men to project. However, when women and people of color exhibit these traits, they often receive unfair criticism.

Professional success is highly dependent on conforming to this executive prototype. Fit this prototype well and you are more likely to get promoted to a role with P&L, operational, or financial responsibility. Every difference from this prototype diminishes the chance of professional success. When we make conformance to this idealized executive prototype the path to success, we devalue difference. We fail to create the inclusive working environments our society needs.

Being the outlier in any group affects our behavior. We bend to fit in, despite the discomfort the bending causes us. This diminishes our confidence, which in turn undermines our effectiveness and success within the group. Imagine how being the only Black, Hispanic, Woman, LGBTQ+ (or all of the above) feels in a room where the majority are white, male, and heterosexual. Now, imagine the group in which you feel like an outsider gets to judge you and decide when you speak, how much money you make, whether you get promoted or not, and ultimately whether you get to grow or even remain in the organization.

If you can imagine that, dig deeper. Imagine how some people within the group tend to talk over you, discard your ideas or repackage them as their own. Then, they give you feedback that you need to stand up for yourself and be more assertive. And when you try to be bolder, you are told that you seem angry or are too forceful. It’s a destructive cycle and a normal that’s far different from my own.

Organizational environments like this feel uncomfortable and even risky to people trying to join and lead a group. When we make conformance the price for inclusion, we delegate responsibility for making it work to the individuals who feel the discomfort and risk most intensely. How can we expect diversity and inclusion to work under circumstances where we require the people we want to include to have an extraordinary capacity for being uncomfortable?

Changing a culture is not something that can be delegated; it requires leaders to use their power as a driver for systematic cultural change, moving from passive support to active partnership. An active partnership that values difference, speaks up against behaviors that demean women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals, and builds more diverse mental models of successful executive behavior. Without this we will continue to move at a snail’s pace. If you are in a position of power, the choice is yours to make. Will you be part of the solution?

If you are in a position of power, the choice is yours to make. Will you be part of the solution?

Here’s a challenge to all white men in leadership roles:

Hold yourself and those who work for you accountable for becoming an active participant in making diversity happen:

  • Seek out situations and stories that make diversity and inclusion more personal for you and your team.
  • Treat diversity and inclusion as a top business priority owned by line executives.
  • Make organizational performance on diversity and inclusion part of every business strategy and performance review.
  • Work with your HR and D&I leaders to rethink and broaden success prototypes for promotions to executive levels. Openly measure progress and tackle bias in career pathways leading to executive roles, particularly P&L, operational, and financial roles.
  • Use your position and power as a driver for inclusion. Actively speak up to protect others from discrimination and microaggression.

With all of us working together, we can create better organizations that represent our society much sooner.

It will be hard. It will feel uncomfortable. It may take your full measure. But it will be right.

Alex Nesbitt is a Senior Advisor at HighPoint Associates, a strategy consulting firm headquartered in El Segundo, CA. Alex has 30+ years of management consulting experience and a strong track record of partnering with CEOs to tackle issues related to strategy, organization, senior team management, operational effectiveness, and performance improvement.