White men who have been bullied are more likely to be workplace allies

A sorry fact: Most workplaces, despite a historic diversity, equity, and inclusion push, are still rife with racial and gender bias. For evidence, look to the macro landscape: Just 1.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black—and that’s a record high.

To take one example from a recent Indeed survey, 35% of Black workers said they “code switch” at work, which means they change their language, tone, or personal style to fit into dominant office culture. Just 12% of white workers said the same.

As always, the onus on achieving equity at work relies on those with the most privilege. And within and beyond the walls of the office, no one in America has more systemic privilege than white cisgender men. 

That’s what makes the findings of a recent entry in the American Journal of Sociology so critical. The report, written by Dr. Erin A Cech, an associate sociology professor at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, finds that white men who have been harassed, bullied, or even physically intimidated in the past are more likely to both recognize and report other instances of bias at work than white men who haven’t been harassed. 

“Past research has robustly demonstrated that white men are less likely than women and people of color to recognize both broad structural inequality and specific instances of discriminatory treatment,” Cech wrote, “largely because they benefit from these structures and do not face the same gender and race-based status disadvantages.”

As a result, “white men will be allies in addressing workplace racism and sexism only to the extent they recognize that such bias exists and are willing to act,” according to the report. Their own negative treatment at work is a primary force in opening their eyes to those injustices, she posited. 

For the article, Cech, a trained mechanical engineer who studies bias and social inequities, studied responses from nearly 11,300 employees in 24 federal agencies. White men harassment targets—about one-third of the white men Cech surveyed—are likelier than other white men “to recognize race and gender bias and to have reported bias to colleagues and supervisors,” she wrote. 

“When white men experience harassment, it dispels a taken-for-granted belief that their workplace operates meritocratically,” Cech said in a UMich interview discussing her new research. “This belief can serve as a blinder to bias recognition and reporting.” (Hence why she titled her study, “Lowering Their Meritocratic Blinders: White Men’s Harassment Experiences and Their Recognition and Reporting of Workplace Race and Gender Bias”.)

Encouraging white men to reflect on their own negative experiences at work “can foster fruitful skepticism” about their jobs’ dedication to their safety and protection, she said. That stands to encourage “a greater willingness to acknowledge unfair treatment” their non-white, non-male colleagues have likely undergone, “and take action.”

“Of course, the takeaway is not that we should increase harassment toward white men,” Cech said. “Rather, white men who have had the unfortunate experience of being bullied or threatened at work might be unexpected allies in diversity and inclusion efforts.”

It’s a fortuitous moment of Cech’s findings, as DEI initiatives at many workplaces risk rollbacks in light of the Affirmative Action overturning in the Supreme Court. 

Those workplace DEI efforts, Cech said, must acknowledge that white men often use their own personal experience at work “as proxies for the experiences of their female and racial minority colleagues.” And even more crucially: “White men’s critique of the status quo through reflection on their workplace treatment may stave off defensiveness and ‘backlash’ that often undermines organizational change.”

In other words, being harassed makes men take harassment more seriously. But you need not be a victim to advocate for change.

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