Wake Up, White Guys! Bill Proudman Tackles D & I

Written by Jan Turner

“There are people who would say, 'Just take them (white male executives) out back and give them frontal lobotomies.' But it’s not that simple.”

Bill Proudman, CEO
White Men as Full Diversity Partners

Bill Proudman pretty much personifies “white male privilege.” He is not only white – he is big, straight, a native-born American, and he holds an executive position. But that is where the stereotype gives way: Proudman has dedicated the last 17 years to helping white guys dig into diversity & inclusion.

“For a long time, white men have looked to women and people of color to be the teachers and emotional buoys on issues involving differences,” says Proudman, founding partner and CEO of White Men as Full Diversity Partners (WMFDP) based in Portland, Ore. This mindset is evident every time a man describes himself as “the token white male” on the diversity committee, Proudman points out. “He is saying, ‘I don’t know anything, and I can’t do anything.’”

But the plain truth, says Proudman, is that white males still dominate corporate life in the United States and the higher that women and people of color rise, the more they are going to encounter it.

Why "White Men"?
According to Michael Welp, Ph.D., who with Bill Proudman and Jo Ann Morris co-founded White Men as Full Diversity Partners, the choice of a provocative name for the organization was intentional: "When people express discomfort about our name, we tell them that their discomfort is 'live data' indicating the need to lean into the conversation rather than away from it. Yes, the conversation requires care, focus and – most importantly – courage. The greatest longterm risk is avoiding the conversation." From WMFDP's In Full Partnership: A Newsletter for Courageous Leaders

“The block that keeps our society stuck on these issues is white men's inability and hesitation to dialogue with other white men and to see each other as potential answers to the most vexing questions,” offers Proudman.

The key, he explains, is to create a “safe harbor” where white men can speak freely with one another and then to work on skills that will allow them to be fully engaged in the D&I process. It is an approach well-grounded in business results, Proudman says, since the inclusive workplace is one in which all can achieve maximum success for themselves and their organizations.

Partnering Across Differences

Proudman explains that he and his colleagues have spent years refining what WMFDP calls “transformative learning experiences.” The programs are designed to raise diversity awareness and make individuals more willing and able to lead and partner across differences in gender, perspective, ethnicity or culture. The overarching goal: eliminating racism, sexism and homophobia in organizations.

According to Proudman, WMFDP’s two flagship programs are the White Men and Allies Learning Lab, for mixed groups of managers and employees – men, women, people of color, “out” gays and lesbians, and others – and the complementary White Men’s Caucus (white men only) which, ideally, serves as a precursor to the Allies lab. Both programs use an away-from-work immersion model, a leadership-skills focus, and the sharing of intense experiences that question assumptions and beliefs. Programs conclude with participants identifying and committing to personal and professional action plans.

The work of the White Men’s Caucus may seem pretty basic – but it is powerful, say participants. According to Proudman, attendees learn that they do have a culture, that their culture impacts behavior (theirs and others), and that “they don’t know what they don’t know.” The “not knowing,” Proudman explains, means that the straight white male is like the fish that doesn’t know it is wet. “It’s not malicious – it’s more a matter of blissful ignorance.”

Culture Change Doesn’t “Just Happen”

Proudman points out that awakening to bias – and eliminating it in the workplace – takes both guidance and practice. In a rare large-scale study of how inclusive workplaces are created, WMFDP recently provided learning labs and follow-up programming for more than 700 Rockwell Automation managers and 2,700 non-managerial employees across the organization. Take-aways are detailed in a report by Catalyst, a leader in gender research, titled “Anatomy of Change: How Inclusive Cultures Evolve.”

They include:

  • Change doesn’t happen on its own. It needs to be planned and facilitated, with buy-in from top leadership.
  • Honest, open dialogue is the foundation of change – but it needs to be taught.
  • To maintain momentum, employees need opportunities to continue talking about gender and race with each other.
  • Sustained culture shift means continued skills development through additional training, coaching and learning sessions.

Getting to “Aha!”

According to Proudman, the watershed “Aha!” for white men often occurs while they talk with one another and discover the wealth of experiences and insights they share. Next is skills-building in such things as respectful inquiry, empathic listening and ways to develop partnerships “with people who may have had 50,000 bad experiences with someone who looks like you.”

Celebrating Masculinity
"I think a part of our way forward right now, as a society, part of our choice point, is about what kinds of masculinity we will uplift as a people. I hope that we are not just critical of hyper-masculinity and the violence of patriarchy, though that certainly has its place. I hope that we work equally hard to praise the good men among us. Because if we don't, if we don't affirm them, there's very little in our society that will in fact draw out their best." Rev. Emily Joye McGaughy-Reynolds Equality Michigan

In a WMFDP webinar titled, “When the Blinders Come Off: White Men Talk about Their Big Aha!,” Northwestern Mutual’s Phil Bender said that his first small D&I steps involved substituting more inclusive language for the war and sports metaphors he was using in the workplace.

Larger steps included Northwestern Mutual, as a whole, replacing the annual golf outing with a more-inclusive run.

Change is not without pain, Bender said. “Our company has recently at all meetings gotten rid of the invocation. That was not a subtle change. The impact of that was felt, and there was some real conflict in it. But the company, in its effort to grow, took a big risk.”

Seeing the World from the Other Side

Even in structured settings, it can be a real jolt for men to hear women open up about their battles with “men’s adolescent playground behavior” in the workplace, Proudman says. He tells of a focus group – not one of his – where women, under guarantee of anonymity, honestly shared tales of men’s behavior toward them. The result: the male listeners were at times practically falling on the floor laughing – and at other times they were moved to tears.

“Men often can’t believe the extremes that women deal with,” Proudman says, largely because women’s experiences are invisible to them. “Because you can’t see it, you can’t believe that her life can really be that difficult,” Proudman says.

The good news, Proudman emphasizes, is that empathy can be a learned skill. “Our experience is that people who may be less empathetic are often motivated to be more effective leaders or want to create work environments where people are at their best.”

“We have worked with many executives in careers that you might not consider as valuing empathy, such as finance and high tech, who have had a transformative shift in their ability to lead and partner across difference,” says Proudman. WMFDP’s client list ranges from Lockheed Martin and Applied Materials to the social change nonprofit Kellogg Foundation.

Scar Tissue, Growing Pains

One of the true challenges of his work is dealing with the “residual scar tissue” of discrimination, Proudman says. “The effects of systemic, longterm bias are like those of a train wreck. The problem is that it’s not a normal train wreck. If it was, we could just do triage. But [bias] is invisible and insidious.”

And catalyzing change is, first and last, pretty risky. “People worry they are going to get clobbered, that they are going to step on the invisible third rail.”

The way through involves courage, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. “We need to recognize that we will metaphorically fall and skin our knees – and that we need to pick each other up,” he says. Proudman, who has two children in bi-racial marriages, says that these dynamics apply to personal life as well.

It’s Not “Training” – It’s a Movement

The D&I work to which he is committed is not really “training,” Proudman says.

“Companies can shift behavior – but people change their behavior and beliefs at their own pace.” Culture change, he admits, is a big challenge – and it is best undertaken with people who want a more inclusive workplace. “We try to work with people at the ‘possibility’ end of the spectrum,” Proudman explains. “You can’t force this learning – taking angry hostages doesn’t work. We look for people who can flex.”

The push toward the inclusive workplace is, in short, a “movement” undertaken by like-minded people. Proudman says that Margaret Mead said it best: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

More on women's equality:
Mark Pizzi, President and COO of Nationwide Insurance, is serious about ensuring that all of his employees have equal access to opportunities. That's why the 57-year-old white male leads the company's resource group for African-American women.
Frank McCloskey, former VP of Diversity for Georgia Power, offers straight talk on gender parity and what it means to be a man today.
Countries with greater gender equality are more economically prosperous. Because this also applies to companies, Joseph Keefe, CEO of Pax World Funds, and the 30 Percent Coalition are pushing for more women to be represented on corporate boards.

Jan Turner lives and writes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia. For more than 20 years her articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, USA Today Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor as well as on wire services in the United States and abroad. Turner has written on subjects ranging from leadership and business culture to diversity awareness and faith-based organizations, and she has a nonfiction book underway. Turner has an advanced degree in intercultural communication and has traveled solo on many continents, exploring cultures from Ladahk and Sumatra to Malawi and Turkey, seeing first-hand the contributions and resilience of women.
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