How Men Create their Own Safe Ports

September 17th, 2013

Male-only spaces can foster candor and emotional honesty.

My first blog post on this topic, In Search of a Safe Port, about where and how men could do their best gender work has stimulated a lot of discussion and reflection. I asserted that men can’t fully build their gender awareness and skill by learning and working in contexts in which women set the norms for the work. For example, I wondered if an organization like Catalyst could effectively foster the dialogue and learning about gender that men need to undertake.

My experiences in the past month have reinforced my belief that while some gender work for men and women must be done in partnership, men also need their own “safe ports,” male led and male. These are places where they can have open, frank conversations in which they express themselves with candor and emotional honesty.

Last week, I worked with a group of men and women on gender in organizations. My colleagues and I split the room into all male and all female groups and let those same-sex groups talk together for a period of time before reconvening the groups for a plenary conversation. In facilitating the men’s conversation, the toughest moments came when some men talked about how they believed women intentionally manipulated men and that women really had no legitimate gender grievances. In fact, they argued, women were the ones who had the upper hand. These sexist perspectives, we later learned, mostly flowed from their personal experiences of injury in interactions and relationships with women. But as I cringed at some of the attitudes expressed, I realized two things. First, these men needed to express themselves in a gathering of men coming together to intentionally address gender (as opposed to talking off-handedly in a bar or at a gym). These sexist views did not need to be censored, but rather expressed and, hopefully, influenced to change.

Second, these men would never have spoken these perspectives if they had not been in a men’s safe space. As one man said, “We censor ourselves around women. It’s not that they are doing anything to us to make us clam up. We just won’t say these things when they are around because we don’t want to be seen as bad guys. But this stuff really is part of how we feel.”

Men’s space is important for another reason. Women’s presence in gender conversations often feels dangerous to men. In the situation I was in last week, some women would—justifiably—have been enraged by what those men said. Men’s sexist perspectives actively injure women on a day-by-day and minute-by-minute basis. That is the reality of gender oppression in our society. But this justifiable outrage does not diminish the value of men being able to express their perspectives. This opportunity for men to speak their truths and be constructively challenged is a valuable method for creating change.

I offer these observations as an entrée into my modest attempts to respond to the two questions I posed in my last post:

1) Where can men do their gender-focused work?
2) What, exactly, is men-focused gender work, as distinct from woman-centered gender work?

I think the right spaces for men to do the best gender work will have the following characteristics:

  • Men can have the opportunity to interact only with other men.
  • These interactions are initiated and owned by men.
  • Men have the opportunity to interact in mixed-sex groups with both men and women. These interactions may be sponsored by men or women AFTER the men have had their own space.
  • Men are explicitly invited to explore what gender would mean if we were not talking about women at all.

All of these conversations include men who can ably facilitate learning productive ways for men to manage their identities and their relationships with women: These facilitators are self-aware and conversant about their experiences as men. And they have highly effective personal and professional relationships with women.

These two blog posts were stimulated by my simple insight that equality between men and women comes from empowering men and women. This empowerment means supporting them to speak their truths and thereby engage with others who may live different—even seemingly opposing—truths. My experience in my visit to Catalyst was one in which I did not feel fully empowered. It was not Catalyst’s fault. It was just that I needed—and I believe many men need—a different point of departure for their learning and development as men.

This post originally appeared on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) website, May 23, 2013.

Trayvon and Zimmerman—What it Means to Be a Man

July 26th, 2013

Expressing our masculinity without violence.

I’ve had difficulty reflecting on the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. I realized that part of it was the result of being stunned by a verdict that seems so wrong. Part of my difficulty was in making sense of the complexity of this situation. Some people are seeing it as a case of racial injustice and profiling of African American Trayvon and the wannabe cop who was white… sort of (Zimmerman is of Peruvian descent and was classified as White Hispanic). Others see it as a gun law issue, a support (or indictment) of Stand Your Ground laws in Florida.

But as I keep looking into this tragedy, I am struck by the masculinity of it all. I’m struck by the ways in which problematic ideals of what it means to be a man likely played out in devastating ways. I see Zimmerman trying to be a man and protector, donning the identity and the weaponry of law enforcement. But he was play acting. There is limited evidence that he was trained rigorously in law enforcement and he was explicitly advised not to act out the role of the cop-protector in the heat of the incident. Yet, he had to be a man and confront Martin.

And Trayvon, probably rightly in fear of personal harm, no doubt attempted to stand his ground and defend himself. I would argue that he was playing the role of a man (young though he may have been) who doesn’t cower when confronted by a bully. Part of that impulse to not be bullied is about being black—I get that deeply as a black person. But racial dignity asserts itself in a variety ways, many of which are not about violent action. I think Dr. King taught us something about that.

Look, I wasn’t there and no matter what I think, if I were in that situation, I don’t know what I would have done. I’m just asking the question of what might have been different about that night—and about the dialogue that has followed these many months since—if we had a different collective idea of what it means to be a man. I wonder what would have happened if the broader deeper definitions of being a man were ingrained in our culture. What if being a man also meant:

  • Avoiding violent confrontation above all else, if at all possible.
  • Questioning your assumptions about the other men you encountered.
  • Accepting help as a virtue, not a sign of weakness.
  • Seeing retreat as a honorable option.

We can’t turn this clock back, sadly. But we can continue to work on helping broaden what it means to act like—and to be—a man.

[This blog was first posted on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) on Jul 18, 2013 12:30 PM EDT. Comment here or read additional perspectives and comments on http://onthemarc.org/blogs/22/199#.UfHVjVO-57c]

In Search of a Safe Port

June 3rd, 2013

This blog was first featured on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) web site, April 2, 2013.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Catalyst in New York for the first time and when I left town, I was struck by a paradox: I don’t think men can explore and understand gender and inclusion as long as they are doing it with women.

The occasion for my visit was a great Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) Thought Leader “Meetup” with Mike, Jeanine, fellow blogger Lars Einar Engstrom, and several other MARC partners and diversity leaders. We had a great conversation, touching on many topics, but I left consumed by an unsettling feeling. As I sat there at Catalyst HQ, seeing the many talented people (mostly women) working on critically important issues concerning women and work, I thought to myself “this is not the right place for me.” It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Catalyst. It’s a beautiful facility with a wonderful vibrancy and buzz about it. The people were terrific and I felt well-taken care of.

But it was not a men’s place. I felt most welcome, but I did not belong there. In retrospect, this was an important observation. I believe that the most critical work men must do in order further gender inclusion requires us to delve deeply into our experiences, attitudes, and behaviors as men. That kind of exploration requires a safe port and it is very difficult for women to provide that port when it comes to gender.

I attended the Work and Gender Conference held at Harvard later that week. It was a fantastic event; lots of smart, interesting people coming together to talk about changing for the better women’s experiences at work. But what was striking was that there were few men in attendance and there was no substantive conversation about men in the workplace.

I have to pause to be clear about something. I do not raise this point from the perspective I’ve seen some men do so. Some guys rail against woman-centered activities and organizations out of insecurity and threat. They feel uneasiness about how they as men are being affected by these women-focused activities.

My point is different. I was honored to be present at that conference and to be present at Catalyst. I fully and unequivocally support these organizations and events. They are the most important places a person can be if she or he wants to engage with women-focused gender work.

I am noting, simply, that these are not always the best venues to engage men-focused gender work. Although men can’t fully develop their skill in gender inclusivity without women, they are held back in their development by abdicating the responsibility to learn about gender to women. Men all too often wait for women to set the context and conversation for gender learning. That will never serve to empower men to fully join in co-creating organizations that truly value the gender identities and experiences of the people in them. If this is true, the obvious next questions are:

1.  Where can me do their gender-focused work?

2. What, exactly, is men-focused gender work, as distinct from women-centered gender work?

I have some thoughts to share in my next blog post, but what do you think?

The Virtue of Being Offensive: How Straight People Can Support LGBT Colleagues

March 5th, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to give a talk on the importance of being offensive (or at least risking being offensive). The occasion was a celebration of Love is Love 2013 Campaign, an annual event at Darden and the University of Virginia focused on promoting inclusion of the LGBT community in the workplace and in the Darden community. My remarks were part of a daily Darden ritual, “First Coffee,” where the community gathers to take a break between classes, connect over coffee or tea, and sometimes mark important events like Love is Love.

Talking about being offensive was strange in this context. Here I was, a heterosexual man, addressing an event with community members of diverse sexual orientations and embarking on a topic that is charged. LGBT members of society are routinely confronted with offensive words and behaviors and, at first glance, my message should have been about ways to diminish those affronts.

But I also think it’s useful to look more deeply at the challenges I see in my consulting, teaching, and research when it comes to the diversity of sexual orientations and identities in our communities. Often, we are so concerned about not risking offending one another that we walk on eggshells. Our goal is to be conscientious and committed advocates for equality and justice for people of all sexual orientations and identities. But my experience is that being overly careful is one of the things that undermines that goal.

I know that I often walk on eggshells with my colleagues and friends of different sexual orientations, especially my gay and lesbian friends. Upon deeper reflection, I‘m learning about why I do. To be honest, I’m often scared and anxious. My anxieties when it comes to sexual orientation include:

  • My worry that I will say something offensive when it comes to sexual orientation—that people will label me as clueless or as a homophobe and that will make me look like bad person.
  • My worry that if I am too strong an advocate people will utter under their breath “I’ll bet he’s really gay,” which freaks me out. Despite my ongoing work in diversity, I still internalize the fear of being seen as gay which somehow equates in my mind to being less of a man. It also feels threatening because I imagine the ways my life and relationships would change if people thought I was gay.
  • I worry that sometimes if I am too strident and too sympathetic, maybe that means that deep down, I might really be gay (see bullet point 2, only bigger)!

The results of these anxieties make me frequently hold me back and keep me from doing what I believe is the right thing to say or do.

So I try three practices that help me overcome:

  • Adopt a learning attitude—I work to remain as open as possible to new information and perspectives. It can help to adopt at attitude of curiosity and to ask questions. One of my most powerful experiences in learning about sexual orientation happened when a friend who lived in Provincetown, MA invited me to visit. “P-town” is a predominantly gay community and I got to feel what it was like to be in an environment where being heterosexual was not a given.
  • Separate intent from impact—This means realizing that even though my words or actions may not be in intended to be harmful or offensive, they can nonetheless be experienced by my audience that way. Separating the two—intent and impact—is important because it helps prevent me from getting defensive when I make a mistake. And if I am not defensive, it is easier to understand why my action was hurtful and to discover other ways to express my sentiment.
  • Practice everyday courage—Just keep being aware and practicing saying when you see or feel that a comment or interaction provides an opportunity to learn. If you see something that is wrong or harmful, try to bring it up in the moment. Usually that can be tough since problematic moments often take us by surprise. But that’s OK. It’s never too late to be courageous. I have often come back a few minutes or a few days later and said “I don’t know if you remember when you said… but after thinking about it, I realized that bothered me. Can we talk about it?…” By the way, I call this “everyday courage” because it helps to remember that this doesn’t have to be a big deal. And if you miss an opportunity today, work on trying it the next time. What is most important is that you keep trying.

I’m not advocating going out of your way to be offensive or obnoxious. Rather, I’m saying that we make progress in overcoming bias—overt and subtle—when we are able to engage, not avoid. That approach has really helped me on my journey to being a better ally for LGBT colleagues.

You Can’t Win with a Room Full of Just White People

November 8th, 2012

As I watched the election returns Tuesday night, I was struck by the “optics” as the networks panned the Obama and Romney headquarters gatherings. These were large spaces—convention centers in Chicago and Boston—where supporters gathered to monitor the progress of the election and to cheer and/or lament the proceedings. I was not wearing my glasses, so I could not easily read the smaller captions signifying the location of the scene. Instead, I monitored the results on my iPad. I also turned down the sound down because the announcers and pundits annoyed me.

The funny thing is I noticed that I did not need captions or sounds to know which headquarters I was watching. This was not because the election seemed to trend in favor of the President; early in the evening, it was still quite a horse race and crowds in both camps were anxious and excited.

Rather, I could tell which room was being shown because I looked at the proportion of white people in the room. The Romney room was almost completely white. As the camera panned the room, there were more and more, well, white people. In contrast, no camera could pan the Obama crowd very long without coming across the face of a person of color.  That is how I knew what I was watching.

This experience reinforced my assessment that no candidate will win a presidential election in this country again if her or his headquarters room on election night is that white.

Analysts have speculated on the myriad of elements that led to the outcome of the election.  But one clear factor in play was the ability of Obama to mobilize communities of color to vote for him. The exit poll statistics are stark. Consider that 72% of voters this year were white, 28 % people of color.[i]  Of that 28%, Obama won 80% of their votes.[ii] Overall:

  • 59% of white people voted for Romney in contrast to 39% for Obama, however…
  • 71% of Hispanics voted for Obama (27% for Romney)
  • 73% of Asians to Obama (26% for Romney)
  • 93% of Blacks for Obama (6% for Romney) [iii]

Blacks matched their record turnout of four years ago, while Hispanic and Asian turnout increased. All gave their votes to President Obama by record margins.

Several people have suggested that somehow, Obama’s appeal to people of color is very much a result of being a man of color himself. For example, in the last weeks of the campaign, various commentators debated whether blacks were voting for Obama because he was black.

Well, surprise.  Of course lots of black people voted for Obama because he was black. I certainly did. But that is not the only reason I voted for him. The fact that voters prefer leaders who they see as similar to themselves is not earth shattering—we all tend to do that. But that preference does not eliminate one’s ability to analyze the leader’s position. Nor does it prevent one from analyzing the alternatives to that leader.

This is where Romney failed. Had he been a more compelling option for people of color, he could have eroded some of the support Obama garnered in this election. No, he couldn’t change the color of his skin.  And I probably would not, at first glance, be attracted to his candidacy as much as to Obama’s. But I see myself as thoughtful and reflective. I most certainly could have been persuaded by an enlightened, cross-culturally adept candidate who took seriously my interests as a black constituent, even if he was white and Mormon. I don’t know if he could have won my vote, but he could have won my attention.

Romney lost voters of color—and the election—not only because these voters were drawn to Obama. He lost because many fled from him. I reject the notion that an older privileged white person can’t win over constituents of color. But if that white person is serious about winning those constituents, he or she had better develop skill and insight about difference, in particular cultural and racial difference. Otherwise, that white person cannot be a compelling and credible option for those constituents.

How does an aspiring candidate gain that skill and insight? Here are some tips for future Republicans, Democrats (I don’t believe this is wholly a partisan thing), and leaders of diverse communities in any walk of life:

1.  Don’t think you can win and lead by pandering superficially to people who are not white. That won’t fill your headquarters ballroom with the winning combination of folks.

2.  Rather, build a diverse coalition around you. Make sure your advisors are diverse, and that they are connected to diverse networks of constituents.

3.  To be able to do this, you must do your own homework. You must develop your personal competence in navigating diverse communities so that you can be seen as a credible representative for people who are different from you.

By the way, this analysis applies not only to white candidates. The same strategy for success must be executed by whoever aspires to lead this country from this point forward. Now more than ever, competence in embracing and leveraging difference is mandatory.

But only if you want to win.


[i] http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/266485-women-minorities-propel-obama-victory

[ii] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/11/how-obama-won-marrying-old-and-new-democratic-coalitions/264884/

[iii] http://www.statista.com/statistics/245878/voter-turnout-of-the-exit-polls-of-the-2012-elections-by-ethnicity/

The Man Responsible for Undermining Efforts to Create Gender Equity? It’s Probably You

September 4th, 2012

This blog was first posted on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) web site, July 18, 2012.

Good guys don’t care about the well-being of their women colleagues as much as they care about being seen as protectors of women, liberty, and all that is pure.”  And that keeps them from creating real change.

Change the people and systems around you, and you change the dysfunctional status quo.

For men who want to see change in gender relations in their workplaces and communities, this assertion makes all kinds of sense. For example, when confronted with men who behave like jerks and disrespectfully and undermine their women colleagues, the right thing to do is to require that they stop the harmful behavior and get their acts together immediately.  And if they need a figurative ass whuppin’ to motivate them, then so be it.

But I think the greatest opportunity to drive change in gender relations is not so much in fixing those jerks. Instead, the most powerful motor for change comes from looking at the motivations and behaviors of us “good guys” who vigilantly hold the “bad guys” accountable.

A few years ago, I underwent a powerful learning experience when I attended a series of leadership classes and seminars as part of the Learning as Leadership (LAL) curriculum. LAL is a firm of several skilled consultants and teachers who help leaders from all kinds of corporate, non-profit, and public sector organizations improve their ability to achieve their mission and goals. There, I learned the concept of “desired” and “dreaded” images. These are images we carry about ourselves and that we invest lots of energy trying to persuade others to carry about us, too.  Desired images are the good ones; these are the perceptions that we want others to hold about us because they make us look good. I want people to see me as intelligent and educated, so I use multisyllabic words when simpler ones would do (see how I just did that?) Dreaded images are the flip side; we work to make sure people don’t see us in these ways. I don’t want to be seen as uptight, so I regularly arrive at meetings a few minutes late and always with a relaxed a demeanor. Everyone carries these images, and they don’t have to lead to bad habits like tardiness. The key is in managing our images effectively.

And that takes us back to the good guys. We good guys (and I count myself in this category) want other people to see us as allies for women and champions for gender equality.  Now, let me be clear:  I’m not saying that we advocates are not passionately committed to constructive change. And I’m not saying that we only care about change because we want to portray a virtuous image. I am saying that in addition to our genuine commitment, we also carry this little piece of ego that gets off on being seen as righteous champions for good. To quote one of my favorite lines from the Matrix movies, “we’re doing our Superman thing.” In addition, I’m saying that when we are motivated by that ego, we undermine our ability to help women and men change the damaging patterns of behavior in so many gender relations.

Let me give you a classic example. A woman friend of mine had to deal with a sexual harassment situation at work in which a co-worker was coming on to her and making very inappropriate public remarks. When she broached the topic with her boss (a good guy) he was pissed. He immediately dressed down this guy with all manner of zero-tolerance language: “I won’t stand for that behavior here!” “you’re suspended and on probation!” “it ends now or you’re gone from here!” etc., etc. My friend appreciated the intent behind what she called the “support script,” but said her boss had basically screwed her.

When I asked her what she meant by “support script,” she said that was the way that good guys act when they want to be seen as “protectors of women, liberty, and all that is pure.”  In fact, she said, her boss did not really care about her well-being as much as he cared about being the guy who beats the crap out of guys who are mean to girls. As a result her boss’ intervention, the harasser and his friends made it more difficult for her to accomplish her work objectives for a time. The guys who were neutral to both parties became wary of her because they saw her as playing the gender/sex card.  Even her women colleagues kept their distance for awhile because they didn’t want to be labeled a “whining woman.” My friend really struggled in the aftermath and almost left the company. The environment was incredibly tense and, not surprisingly, collaboration really suffered.

The problem with succumbing to the desire to be seen a certain way is that it clouds our ability to accurately analyze a situation and act with wisdom and savvy. We lose track of our real goals and values—like fairness, equity, and creating a vibrant work environment—and get caught up in “look how cool I am” moments. I’ve been there. And I’ve seen many men who advocate for real change behave just this way.

If you really want to create sustained positive change, don’t look for bad guys to beat up. Instead:

1)     focus on the vision of change you want

2)     Take a beat and stifle the impulse to don your cape.

3)     Develop a discipline of asking yourself the question “what can I do in this situation to help my people and my organization achieve that vision?”

4)     Seek out other people to help you temper your righteous indignation; and

5)     Marshal your experience and wisdom to deal with the situation. [1]

Only then will you really start doing the right thing.



[1] Check out “Rethinking Political Correctness,” in the September 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review for more on these key skills. My coauthors (Robin Ely and Deborah Myerson) and I explain them in more depth.

Beyond the Blind Spots

July 17th, 2012

This blog was first posted on the MARC (Men Advocating for Real Change) web site, June 11, 2012.

I often think about these three guys I know:

  • Guy 1 is devoted to gender equality. He knows there are gender inequities in society and the world over, and he goes out of his way to make sure that he fights for the rights of women.
  • Guy 2 doesn’t really give a damn about gender equality and bristles at the notion that we’re having the conversation. He believes that men have their status relative to women and that’s how it goes (besides, women have a lot of benefits men don’t have).
  • Guy 3 is on the fence; he thinks things aren’t always right in relations and dynamics between men and women, but he doesn’t have a lot of motivation one way or the other to do anything differently.

OK, now the pop quiz—which guy fosters greater equity and inclusion for women and men in organizations?

Most people choose Guy 1. He’s the one who is active, energized, and committed to creating change. Guy 2 is the clear resistor and he’s not forwarding the cause. And Guy 3 is annoyingly indecisive, so he’s not helpful. Indeed, many men who care about gender equity follow the heroic path of Guy 1.

But each of these guys has blind spots that get in the way of being trusted and reliable agents of change in creating inclusion and equity. Guy 2 is the obvious knucklehead in this regard. He does not understand and appreciate the value of true equity with the women in his life, both professional and personal. For example, one manager I worked with shared privately that his experience revealed that women were exceptional in social relations positions like HR in his organization, but that he had serious concerns about hiring women for technology-intensive positions.  Guy 2 is generally not interested in the kinds of arguments offered by Michael Kimmel in his MARC post on Why Men Should Support Gender Equality that show how his work and home life could be better. He also doesn’t appreciate the costs he incurs by embracing his unearned privilege as a man.

Guy 3 is picking his nose. He’s not focused on the impact of inequities and lives in a fog about this stuff. He sees the problems that women colleagues and friends have, but he gets distracted and ends up not following through on trying to do anything about the problems.

And Guy 1—the Committed One—knows exactly what needs to be done to create change, and his certainty and arrogance about it all alienates many of the men (and the women) with whom he needs to collaborate.

The guy who may be most important in fostering gender equity and inclusion is Guy 4. He’s the one who accepts the mission to engage each of three above to work together to change gender inequities. This fourth actor is committed to equality, but understands the importance of not discounting any of the other three. At any moment in time, one of these guys may be instrumental in creating change. Guy 1 will be a tireless advocate and can lead in that way. Guy 2 can model that change can happen even for someone who seems resistant. His visible learning can be inspirational. And Guy 3 is the silent majority who, if motivated, can transform an organization or community that is exclusive to one that embraces equity.

So here’s one last confession. I didn’t make these guys up out of thin air. I am all of these guys. At different moments and in different relationships, I experience each of these “guy states.” At times I am outraged and deeply hurt by the inequities that I see and I am highly motivated to create change. I push for inclusion because the alternative is unpalatable. At other times, I feel resentful of my women colleagues and friends. They seem not to support me when I need it the most and I am annoyed and frustrated by their behaviors and attitudes. And at other times, I am simply paralyzed, knowing that change is needed, but not knowing what to do or how to do it. Part of what helps me to be effective in supporting change is not beating myself up when I am not perfectly politically correct and not getting too self-important when I am. Men who really want to make a difference need to embrace their inner Guy 4s.

Duped By Dominance

June 12th, 2012

This post first appeared on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) web site, April 30, 2012.

I had a friend in graduate school, Miriam, a tall vivacious woman who was both gregarious and grounded in a really appealing way. A conversation we had one day has stuck with me over the years. She remarked that she and I might be able to work together in interesting ways because we had complementary perspectives on the “Race and Gender 2X2.” Of course, she meant that because she was a white woman and I was a black man, we held diagonal positions on a 2X2 matrix that captured our racial (black or white) and gender (male or female) identities:


This was one of the first times I had ever reflected on what had previously been an invisible consciousness. I knew I was black and understood my place in the dynamics of race in the U.S. But what surprised me was how that focus prevented me from paying as close attention to my identity as a man. With time, I reconciled this shortcoming by focusing on my fallback position—I was, in fact, a black male! That felt much better. I was giving a nod to my gender but not forgetting the ever-important race struggle that was integral to my U.S. experience.

In fact, I was playing an identity mind game. I was looking for a way not to deal with my male identity.  My colleague Heather Wishik and I are working on a new line of research that begins to map what was happening to me as I was confronted with my identity as a man. Our social identities—race, gender, sexual orientation, able-bodied-ness, etc.—are always imbued with a dynamic of power. We call these “dominance” or “subordinance.” In any of these identities, you are generally one-up or one-down in the social order. Subordinance identities in the U.S. include being a person of color, female, LGBT, or lower class. Dominance identities are being affluent, heterosexual, male, or white. (By the way, in our research, these two labels don’t convey value judgments about a person’s character. Being a member of a dominant of subordinant group is just a description of how that group identity is situated in larger society).

Racially, I carry a subordinance identity by virtue of my blackness in the U.S. But by gender, I live a dominance identity. I am the youngest of three boys in my family and over the years, the next two generations of my immediate family are all boys. As I often tell folks, we have to bus women into my family. Masculinity is a deeply rooted part of my upbringing and my background.

And that is precisely why it was so invisible—and so uncomfortable—to me. One of the greatest subtle biases we all carry are connected to those identities in which we carry dominance. And most people have one or more of these dominant identities. It’s almost a guarantee that when we look closely at our dominant identities, our vision about them is clouded and distorted. Most of the time, we have a very hard time talking about them. We don’t have lots of insight into the experiences of being of that identity. With race in the U.S., I often encounter white people who don’t know what to say about their experience being white; they just have not thought about it that much. By the same token, I had a hard time just reflecting on my maleness in response to Miriam’s invitation. I wanted to make it my “black maleness” that was at issue. That was just another way of trying to cling to race and avoid dealing directly with my dominant identity as a man.

Peggy McIntosh’s classic 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” helped articulate the experience of privilege and the role that power plays in our everyday experience. What we have to reflect upon today is how subtle and insidious power and privilege is in the way it shapes our perceptions, relationships, and colleagueship. In my case—like that of many others—my dominant identities hid behind my subordinant identity, pushing race front and center while maleness remained stealthily in the wings. Indeed, it’s no accident that power and dominance are often such difficult topics to address in the workplace. Dominance perpetuates itself by being psychologically and behaviorally elusive. The bias of privilege has a life of its own and no one is immune to its effect. Every man, no matter his race, creed, or color has to come to terms with how the dominance of maleness quietly shapes him.

How do you overcome this bias? There is no better antidote than awareness. By just reading this blog post, you’ve affected the bias by making it more visible. In addition:

  • Make sure that people who are conscious of these dynamics are a part of your network. Having social support in identifying, and when possible, counteracting the fruits of dominant maleness is essential. Like-minded allies help you to see biases and can support you and hold you accountable for doing something differently.
  • Keep people in your circle who are mostly oblivious to this stuff. Being aware of your dominance is exhausting. Give yourself a break and commune with people who are similarly committed to not being intense about this stuff every waking hour. I don’t suggest this lightly. Remember that dominance is as smart as you are and probably a little more devious. You have to feed it a little to keep it calm. Do so with benevolent intent.

How Good Leaders Fight Stupid Bias

June 8th, 2012

I recently came across an article in Diversity Inc that described racial uproar at UCLA’s School of Medicine.  A Black medical professor, Dr. Christian Head, was depicted as a gorilla as part of an annual “roast” by medical students. The racist prank ignited national attention as a petition on change.org, had collected nearly 85,000 signatures.

Being outraged by this stupid behavior is understandable, but not particularly helpful. Nor will some of the recommendations in the article—having CEOs hold people accountable with zero tolerance policies, requiring mandatory diversity training, and promoting resource groups—really change the root causes of this behavior over the long run.

I agree that accountability from leadership is absolutely crucial to fighting this kind of bias, but zero tolerance is not the way exercise accountability. Leaders have to take responsibility for being discerning about what behaviors merit the severest reprimands (censure or termination) and what behaviors can better be served by engaging the perpetrators and other stakeholders in learning opportunities. Zero tolerance can be a cop-out: it allows leaders to abdicate the responsibility for being thoughtful about how they deal with diversity in their organizations.

In addition, “mandatory training” recommendations should always be accompanied by the qualifier “good.” Mediocre diversity training can be more damaging than no training at all. It can heighten resistance to diversity and can stoke resentment toward the people who are different it was supposed to support.

Resource groups are clearly helpful, but only if they are supported unequivocally by leadership and strategically aligned. They must wholly be a part of the organization and must be both a resource for its members and a resource for the organization.

Outrage gets old. Informed, deliberate, and sustained leadership action is what eliminates ridiculous incidents like the one at UCLA.

My Lessons from 6th Graders: How to Stop Being Comfortably Black

May 30th, 2012

When I returned to my home town of Cleveland, Ohio to promote my new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It:  Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I was excited. I couldn’t wait to see old friends, some of whom I had not seen since childhood. I was eager to show everyone what I had accomplished over the years. It would be a real coming out party. And it turned out to be just that. It was a great event and I really enjoyed reconnecting with family, friends, and colleagues.

But the best part of the event was not the connection with the old faces (sorry, seasoned faces?…ok, this is not getting any better…). The best part happened when, shortly after the event got started, a seemingly endless line of short people enter the venue. To my surprise and delight, my youngest nephew’s class concluded their school day with a field trip to my book event. And this was going to be great because now, I would also be able to influence young minds, too!

I probably did make some impression on the kids, but if I did, that was the backstory for me. In the hour that followed after they settled into their seats, these 11—13 year olds educated me and the rest of the adults in the audience. I wanted to engage them in discussion about three big ideas about Leveraging Difference: 1) the importance of having a strategy, 2) being able to see, understand, and engage multiple differences, and 3) endeavoring to stay focused on larger goals without being distracted. They stunned us all with their variety of insights, but none were more provocative than their thoughts about distractions and diversions.

Now as we all know, our kids live in an incredibly stimulating environment with video, social media, and myriad technologies to grab their attention. And we all know that attention deficit issues are ever-present in dealing with educating kids, right? Except this groups of kids violated those assumptions. They were certainly regular kids, full of energy, and excited about being in this sun-drenched university meeting room overlooking the Cleveland landscape. There was no shortage of “herding cats” activity going on. But once they focused, they provided a number of gems:

Martin:            …the third big idea: you have to keep your eye on the larger goal. What do I mean by that?

1st student:      Paying attention to what’s really important.

Martin:            What keeps people from remembering what’s really important?

1st student:      People get distracted…like something happens in the stock market and they are not focusing on their business. They’re trying to figure out how to get out from under.

2nd student:     Sometimes, in order to run a business, you have to be able to change things. Sometime people let greed get in the way of their goals. They can be too greedy for money. Like a fool is easily separated from his money? If you don’t lead your business well, you could easily lose it all.

3rd  student :    I believe that personal goals get in the way. In order to do well, you sometimes have to put personal goals aside to achieve the larger goal, or else you sacrifice the larger goal.

OK, so what does this have to do with being “comfortably black?” There was something about hearing these words from the mouths of young people that compelled me to ask myself: what distracts me? I decided to examine what was getting in the way of how I was sharing what I was learning from the book with the audiences I met. I realized that I had two great distractions I continue to work on:

1)    Being the “rock star.” When I arrive at a place to teach a class, give a talk, or consult with a client, I am invited to be the center of attention. This is an awfully seductive position to be in because I know that in these circumstances, I love the spotlight. But invariably, that impulse to bask in the limelight makes it very difficult to actually help my students learn, affect my audiences constructively, or help my clients change. I am preoccupied with what I need to do to look smart, sophisticated and suave (whether or not I can execute on it!)

2)    Being “comfortably” black. As a result of #1, I have been vigilantly challenging myself (especially in my diversity work) not settle into being “the black authority.” I find it appealing to show how knowledgeable and insightful I am by using race as a reference for my teachings and conversations. But the people I work with often want to engage and learn about other differences as well. Many times, these other differences are more important in their lives than race. I have to do a better job of doing my homework and learning about differences beyond race. I have to be open to feeling anxiety, being unsure of myself, even reacting defensively in talking about and working with other differences. I won’t always be the expert; I’ll have to learn, too.

In these situations, I have a personal mantra that I actually speak to myself, under my breath, or out loud: How can I be helpful to this class/audience/client in our time together? Just reminding myself prior to an engagement and then during the encounter helps me to refocus on the larger goal.

I am so grateful to my youngest nephew’s class.