Diversity at work: what I learnt as a white, male MD

I’m a 33 year old, white, male, Managing Director in the media industry. And I have been looking at diversity and inclusion in the workplace from the wrong angle.

I actually wrote the bulk of this post some time ago but didn’t post it because I feared people would think I was trying to tick a box, score points or get a pat on the back - “a 30-something white guy talking about the importance of diversity in the workplace”…I could see the eye rolls already, and the imposter syndrome was - and still is - real.

In May I attended RISE - Creative Equals’ event around diversity and inclusion in the media industry, which was truly inspirational, with so many fantastic sessions and speakers. I watched a session on imposter syndrome with interest, while still being too nervous to grab the mic myself and tell my own story. But I reflected over the next week and decided to hit the post button. So here we are!

Why diversity and inclusion in the workplace matter

24 months ago my views towards diversity in the workplace were quite different to what they are today. My point of view has changed, and I want to share how and why diversity and inclusion are important, as it may be useful for others who are stuck where I was.

In mid 2017, six months into my role as MD, the number of comments about Raconteur’s gender diversity (or lack of it) started to increase pretty rapidly. Our senior management team had fairly quickly gone from being three women and two men, to seven men and one woman. We’d grown, and one of my first big decisions had been to increase the size of the senior team. A few senior women left in the 12 months previous, and the most qualified and deserving to step up into those positions at the time happened to be male. And that’s where it all began.

When the comments about gender imbalance and female representation started, and subsequently ramped up, I looked at it and honestly felt victimised (and yes, I can totally see the irony in that now). I took it personally. I kept using this phrase “but it isn’t that way by design”. We’d shown we didn’t have a problem with women being in the senior team previously, and we’d always had a good track record of promoting both males and females, so it clearly wasn’t a real problem for us, I thought. And we didn’t need to do anything differently, I thought.

It was an “it’s not my fault” reaction - classic defensiveness. The men I spoke to (retrospective facepalm) generally seemed to agree that what I was saying was fair enough; it was ‘logical’ - and nobody, male nor female, was disagreeing that the guys I’d promoted deserved it.

But the comments didn’t go away. And over time they got louder and more frequent. I realised the issue wasn’t going anywhere unless something changed, and I came to the conclusion that I didn’t know anywhere near enough about the topic, or understand what I needed to do differently. I hadn’t paid enough attention and it really frustrated me that there was something I just didn’t “get”.

Rise diversity summit organised by Creative Equals

RISE by Creative Equals

Learning to embrace diversity and inclusion

So I started spending more time with the women at Raconteur. I started actually listening to them with an open mind, rather than going into conversations with a pre-existing view which I was determined to justify (and, though I didn’t see it at the time, had no intention of changing). I asked more questions. I started to read articles and books on the general topic of diversity and inclusion. I watched videos about what underrepresented groups were saying, about how they felt in their workplaces. It wasn’t the same as how I felt at all, and it was thought-provoking. Why did we all feel so differently about what I had considered to be, ultimately, pretty similar workplace experiences?

And finally the penny dropped.

I don’t think or feel the same way as, for example, a woman does - because I’m not a woman. I’ve never been one, so how could I think like one, or truly understand women’s views? And if I’m not a woman, and I don’t think like a woman, I can’t represent women at the board table. I can’t represent their views in our senior management meetings. I just can’t, or at least I can’t do it the justice it deserves, even if I were to try. And that’s the same for gender generally, race, sexuality, ability et al.

Previously, I thought “I’m a good guy, I would always do the right thing, I wouldn’t let anything to do with diversity and inclusion impact my rational decision-making - why can’t people see that?” I was never sexist (or any of the ‘ists’), but I was looking at the issue the wrong way, and had missed the point. Having never been in a minority, having never experienced discrimination or even bias, I needed to look at this through a different lens.

And then it all switched. I realised that it doesn’t matter whether it was “by design” or not. The simple point is, if you lack diversity of any kind at a senior level, then the views of the less-represented groups aren’t being heard at the decision-making table. If you lack diversity of any kind generally, then they’re pretty much not going to get heard at all, which makes it even harder to implement the behaviours that support equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. And in either case the business certainly isn’t going to benefit from their different, but potentially highly valuable or creative, viewpoints.

Ask yourself - what does diversity mean to you?

If any male leader has got this far and is thinking “yeah, all well and good, Will, but in our business…”, just stop. You’re stuck trying to justify a problem. I’ve been there. It might genuinely not be your fault. It might also be entirely your fault. It’s probably somewhere in the middle. But either way it’s irrelevant. It just doesn’t matter. It’s not about what’s happened in the past, or justifying why things are the way they are. It’s about what is happening now, and what happens next.

It seems so simple now. But it hadn’t fully clicked for me until 6-12 months ago and I think there is value in vocalising that. Many of you reading might be thinking “well, duh!” - and fair enough - plenty of far more progressive male leaders have realised the importance of diversity sooner than I and, of course, it’s what women have been saying all along. I realise this is basic stuff, and I certainly don’t want a medal or a pat on the back. But I think a lot of people (men, let’s be honest) are stuck where I was - closed minds, looking backwards, trying to justify. Listening, perhaps, but not hearing.

In fact, I know they are because they say the things I used to say back to me now when I talk to them about my experiences. It’s not anyone’s fault, per se, they just haven’t “got it” yet - just like I hadn’t. And that’s one of the reasons why the progress of inclusion in the workplace is too slow everywhere.

Of course, it’s pretty much impossible for every board or management team to be 100% diverse, and it will take some time to get closer to that. But even if getting better will take a bit of time, our experience also shows you can also work on shorter-term diversity and inclusion projects (as well as other things like mental health) to get things moving, and the wheels don’t fall off.

The business case for diversity

On a slight aside, my second confession is that I also used to think that if myself or our employees had “distractions”, we wouldn’t get as much done, sales might drop, and we wouldn’t serve our clients as well. I viewed things like diversity and inclusion and mental health as potential distractions - Pandora’s boxes - and I was nervous about opening them. I bet a lot of business leaders feel that way too. Head firmly in the sand. Hope it goes away. Must not lose focus.

But they won’t go away, and for very good reasons.

We opened those Pandora’s boxes and what’s inside is fascinating - I’m actually enjoying it in here. It’s challenging. It’s humbling. There are some painful self-truths and realisations, some uncomfortable conversations, for sure, but it’s fascinating. It’s also hugely rewarding when you start to make progress, however slowly initially.

Recently we’ve started doing pro bono work for charities which don’t have the resources or skillsets that we do. We’re now working with Media Trust on some charitable “give back” and fundraising initiatives, and we’re excited to be speaking with Creative Equals about how they can help us get better when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and how we can support them, starting with a few manageable projects which will actually make a difference.

We’re now doing lots around mental health and well-being internally. We’ve really listened to staff feedback, initially through Engagement Multiplier and now through Peakon, and we’re changing things for the better, bit by bit. We’re involving our staff in these discussions and initiatives, listening to their ideas and letting them completely lead on some of the projects that they’re really passionate about. And I want to give a huge amount of credit and thanks to them for that - it would have been easy to give up, and if they had, I/we would still be looking backwards. None of this is groundbreaking, but it’s a start.

And alongside this we seem to be getting more done. We’re selling more than ever before and we seem to be serving our clients better (at least they seem to be happier). Our employee engagement score has gone from 54% to 91%, and churn is down (even with 50% more people). All of this in just 18 months.

The exact opposite of what I used to fear is actually happening.

Members of the Raconteur team volunteering for the Media Trust

Diversity and inclusion - it’s an opportunity to seize!

I’m not proclaiming to be an expert now - I’ve got a lot more to learn about the subject of inclusion, equality and diversity in the workplace, as well as much more, certainly, and I am committed to that learning. I know there is a long way to go and I’ll only silence the “box ticking” accusers with sustained action. I’ve no doubt I’ll make a mistake or two going forwards with what I now want to do differently, but that’s life.

If you’re reading this as a white, male business leader, like me, who thinks the same way I used to, I hope my little story is in some way helpful. I hope it gives you a bit of confidence to be a bit more open minded, or to start experimenting with one or two different things. It’s OK to have got it a bit wrong. At least have a peek into the boxes…what’s inside might surprise you.

If you’re reading this as someone who feels underrepresented in their workplace, and/or you’re frustrated by the lack of diversity in your workplace, or by the pace of change, I guess I’d just encourage you not to give up on people like me! Your messages and campaigning does make a difference, and if we all have open minds and talk to one another, the pennies will start dropping all over the place before long.

Finally a shout out to my amazing colleagues at Raconteur for your enthusiasm, ideas and general openness to helping us, and me, understand this better, and start the process of positive change. You’re such a smart and passionate bunch, and we’re truly lucky to have you all. Thank you also to Ali, Sagina, Pip and the whole Creative Equals team for the event this week (if you haven’t been before, go! It will sell out!), and to Gemma Greaves for your session on imposter syndrome and giving me the confidence to hit post.

This is just the start, really, but I’m excited by the road ahead. Bring it on!