Why White Men Hold Key to Driving Diversity, Inclusion in Tech

Don Tennant

Any company that relies on tactics and actions to foster diversity and inclusion is certain to find that its effort will be futile. Instead, the effort needs to be focused on a wholesale change of culture and mindset, and it needs to be spearheaded by white men.

That was my main takeaway from a recent interview with Bill Proudman, founding partner and CEO of White Men as Full Diversity Partners (WMFDP), a diversity and leadership consulting firm in Portland, Oregon. In Proudman’s view, moreover, “inclusion” and “leadership” are synonyms. “They’re interchangeable words,” he says. Suffice it to say, it was a thought-provoking interview.

I asked Proudman what he sees as the root cause of sexism in the tech industry. He said it’s tough to say there’s just one root cause:

I would say it’s a little bit like a mountaineering accident, where there are competing, contributing causal effects. Generally speaking, with gender equity issues within the tech sector, a couple of things are in play. One is, the tech sector, like most other industries, has seen gender equity as a women’s problem, so most of the focus has been on, let’s help women with leadership and mentoring programs. Nobody will ever say this, but they’re teaching the women to act like men, and thinking that that’s good enough. That’s problem No. 1.


Secondly, in the tech sector you’ve got a lot of men, particularly white men in the U.S. — there are some Asian and Indian men — so it has largely been a male environment. Another contributing factor is the historic pattern for girls to have their math and science scores plummet in adolescence. The research has shown that that happens because all of a sudden, they don’t want to appear smarter than the guys. That has further skewed the pool. There’s also the information that young girls get from other girls, from boys, and from men and women, that being smart is not ladylike. So there’s a lot of old-school, inherent sexism that’s built into that.

And then when this small pool of women gets into the tech sector, there are horrendous stories about what they are subjected to in the way of blatant stuff, and subtle, nuanced stuff that causes them to say, “Do I really want to spend my time here?” That’s one of the reasons why women comprise a disproportionately high percentage of people who are starting small businesses, not just in the tech sector, but in industry in general. They have to fit into a largely male world, and they’re a little exhausted by it.

Proudman went on to explain WMFDP’s diversity strategy, and what makes it different:

Our approach to this topic comes through a leadership mindset — it starts with mindset, as opposed to tactics, or actions. A lot of companies start with tactics and actions, and the mindset hasn’t shifted. It’s a little bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic — it might look different, but the ship’s still going down. So our belief is that leaders’ behavior and awareness of their mindset around this topic is foundational. We work through a behavioral mindset that has leaders do three things: to grow consciousness — what don’t I know that I don’t know; to grow courage — how do I persevere, hold the course, speak the truth, hang in there; and to grow confidence — what are the skills and behaviors that I need to learn to be a more effective leader in the realm of inclusion. To me, “inclusion” and “leadership” are synonyms — they’re interchangeable words. A good leader builds an inclusive team and environment; sees the people standing in front of them for who they are; values and respects those people; and motivates those people to exceed expectations, rather than treating everybody as a widget.

Proudman said that for the past 30 years, diversity has been looked at as an issue about women and people of color:

So white guys think of themselves as an endangered species — they’re going to lose opportunities, now that we’re focused on inclusion and diversity. So we’re changing that mindset. This isn’t about replacing this group with somebody else. It is about questioning the mindset that says, “We’ve always hired and promoted the best candidate.” That has to be mythology, if those people are disproportionately white men. As bright as I am, me just being white and male doesn’t mean that I have a corner on my industry’s intelligence and capability. So we’re missing talent, because we have an implicit bias that isn’t intentional, and it’s not just some white men—everybody’s doing this. Changing that takes time, and consciously looking at how we’ve confused the best person for the job, with the person we’re most comfortable with. We tend to hire and promote people who are most like ourselves—they’re the ones we’re most comfortable with, thinking that they’re somehow the best candidate.

Proudman pointed out that WMFDP has been working with Dell for three years, and genuine progress in terms of diversity and inclusion is being made globally:

They finally said, “We need to engage men, and have men see gender equity as a men’s issue as well as a women’s issue, rather than telling men what they need to do to mentor women, and put some women in these roles.” That’s what they’re doing at the executive level, across the whole company. A lot of companies, because they want to see progress happen quickly, basically hire or promote women to fill slots. And then when the women fall out of those slots, they’re not just back to square zero. They’re usually further back, because the mindset in that system is, women need not apply, and they get a reputation as not being a friendly industry for women to work in.

Noting that Dell has its top 15 executives listed on its website, and 14 of them are white men, I asked Proudman whether more diversity on that page wouldn’t speak more loudly than a pronouncement that Dell is working with WMFDP. Proudman said they’re working toward that:

But it’s not as simple as changing out some pictures on a website — that’s been tried, and that’s called “tokenism.” Anybody can be promoted or recruited into whatever position. You can get pictures of whatever leadership team, put them in the annual report, and feel like you’ve created an equitable or inclusive environment.

Representation is just that — you can be diverse representationally, but not inclusive. Dell is taking more of a long-term approach — they’re applying some patience. They are committed to creating much more equity around gender — not just among their senior leadership, but in their mid-leadership positions. That takes time, because part of that is about creating a culture that is inclusive, rather than simply a representation effort.

Proudman readily acknowledged that companies can use that argument to say, “We’re working on that, it’s just going to take 20 years.” And that can sometimes rightly be seen as an excuse to do nothing:

So the challenge is, how do you act quickly, but stay focused on the long term? Because it takes rigor and perseverance to change culture — culture doesn’t change simply because you change out the pictures of the executive group. Dell is privately held, but they would be irresponsible to their shareholders, if they were a publicly traded company, to simply stick people in, in order to create a representation picture of what the culture is, and to do that instantaneously. From my perspective, that’s what hasn’t worked in the tech sector, where a lot of that has been tried. It takes courage and persistence for these typically white male leaders to hang in there and change not just the seats at the table, but the culture, and what’s valued in that system. That’s a long play. That’s not, “We’ll do it this fiscal quarter, and then we can shake hands and congratulate ourselves.” Inclusion is a little bit like safety in manufacturing. You don’t just think about safety for one quarter, and then forget about it.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.



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