Empowering white men to champion the campaign for diversity


Empowering white men to champion the campaign for diversity

Although employment rates for women and ethnic minorities have improved significantly over the last 40 years1, further improvements are still required before we see a truly diverse workforce. Recent research has highlighted that one approach to achieving this could be encouraging more white men to take advantage of their privileged position within society to make a difference and bang the drum for diversity2.

The number of women and ethnic minorities who occupy leadership positions at work are shockingly low. Only 7% of FTSE 100 companies have female CEOs and the proportion of women in senior leadership roles in the UK is only 19%3. For ethnic minorities, the situation isn’t any better, only 4% of FTSE 100 companies have black and ethnic minority CEOs and 53% of boards have no non-white directors.

So, why do white men continue to dominate leadership positions? What barriers are preventing women and ethnic minorities from breaking into these positions? Some of the blame has been aimed at women and ethnic minorities who currently occupy senior leadership roles. These leaders have been accused of purposely blocking the progression of other minorities by not speaking up for or promoting them into leadership positions because they feel they need to conform to the dominant majority, maintain their own status or because they fear that peers from their in-group will fail in their new role and reaffirm the stereotype that women and ethnic minorities are not capable of working in senior positions. However, this doesn’t tell the full story. Recent research has shed light on another reason why female and ethnic minority leaders may feel hesitant to promote diversity in the workplace…

Two studies in the US tested the impact of engaging in and promoting diversity for employees in the workplace3.

In the first study, 350 executives were surveyed about their diversity valuing behaviours at work (10% were non-white and 31% were women). The executives had to answer to what extent they understood, respected, valued and felt comfortable with engaging in pro-diverse behaviours. The executives’ performance was also rated by colleagues and their manager. Surprisingly, engaging in diversity valuing behaviours had no effect on how white men’s performance was rated. Even more shocking was the finding that non-white and female executives who engaged in diversity valuing behaviours were given poor performance ratings by their colleagues and manager. Female and ethnic minority executives were perceived negatively and penalised for engaging in pro-diverse behaviours whereas white men were not.

To see if they could replicate this effect, the researchers recruited 307 participants (30% non-white and 41% women) for a second study. Participants were given a scenario where a manager decided to hire one of two different candidates for a Vice President position. The two candidates were equally qualified but had different demographic backgrounds. One candidate was a white male and the other was either female, non-white or both. They were then asked to rate the performance and competence of the manager’s hiring decision. Again, female and ethnic minority managers who hired candidates that were either female or non-white were rated poorly in terms of performance and competence. On the other hand, there was no difference in terms of the competence and performance ratings given for white male managers whomever they hired.

So, why were minorities rated poorly for engaging in and supporting diversity? The authors of the research suggest that when female and ethnic minority employees show an eagerness to promote diversity, they were rated as incompetent or poor performers because it set off negative stereotypes about their demographic group and suspicions about their motives. For example, that ethnic minorities and women must be less competent because they are from a low-status group or that minorities in senior roles are only using their power status to hire or promote people from similar backgrounds because they favour them or because they want to improve the status of their social group.

It is demoralising that many women and ethnic minority leaders feel reluctant to promote diversity because of the potential risks to their own careers. There is too much pressure for minorities to tackle the issue of diversity alone. Diversity is everyone’s responsibility and that means that white men are just as responsible.

Because white men find themselves in a privileged place in society they have a huge opportunity to champion the campaign for diversity. There are many actions they can take to help progress women and ethnic minorities into leadership positions, make their organisations a more diverse place and consequently protect minority leaders from threats to their careers. If they don’t, the number of women and ethnic minorities in senior leadership positions will remain tragically low.

What can your organisation do to empower more white men to champion diversity?

1. White men as spokespersons:

Encourage white men to help, lead and speak about the importance of diversity. If white men involve themselves in the campaign for diversity it will help change perceptions that diversity is a female or ethnic minority “problem” and towards the fact that diversity benefits everyone.

2. Leaders of tomorrow:

Help white men to actively involve themselves in the mentoring and coaching of future female and ethnic minority leaders.

3. Reward diversity:

Find ways within your organisation to reward and praise leaders for promoting individuals who have different backgrounds to them. Doing so would bring more women and ethnic minorities into senior leadership roles because there are currently many more white male leaders.



1. Office for National Statistics. (2017). UK labour market: July 2017. Estimates of employment, unemployment, economic inactivity and other employment related statistics for the UK. Retrieved from

2. Hekman, D. R., Johnson, S. K., Foo, M. D., & Yang, W. (2017). Does Diversity-Valuing Behavior Result in Diminished Performance Ratings for Non-White and Female Leaders?. Academy of Management Journal, 60(2), 771-797

3. Grant Thornton, An Instinct for Growth. (2017). Women in business: New perspectives on risk and reward. Retrieved from

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