Just a middle class white guy

I have a confession to make. A thing that has been weighing on my mind for a while now, lying in the deep recesses of my consciousness, troubling me. There is something that I want to get off my chest, something that I want to share, that I feel I need to share.

I’m a white middle class male and I may not actually deserve what I have achieved.

“Achieved” to successfully bring about or reach (a desired objective or result) by effort, skill, or courage….so that’s a joke in itself. What if it wasn’t through my effort, skill or courage. What if it was though the lottery of demographics, socio economics and genetics?

I’m not suggesting that anyone ever said, “lets give him the job because he’s a white male” or thought, “I should listen to him because he is a middle class, middle aged dude and he is bound to say something sensible”.

But what if it just happens….because of the way we are, the way we are brought up, the norms we are expected to adhere to?

I was sat in Berlin a few weeks ago, working as an assessor on an international development centre. Because it was a development centre and because, in HR, we have no imagination, there was a group exercise. When we came to the wash up and validation session, there was a debate about the scoring. My sense was that some of the candidates had been scored less highly than others because they’d said less. But they hadn’t contributed less. And they were disproportionately female.

One of the people I was observing had nodded, reaffirmed, encouraged, listened and supported. She didn’t say that much, but she had played an important role. Others suggested that as she hadn’t said anything, she couldn’t be rated highly for her contribution. These were skilled and experienced HR professionals.

And that is just one simple example.

I’ve learnt how to behave from my experience, I know how to position myself in a room, to hold myself to…..encourage, consider, control, direct. I can get my views heard and considered, not necessarily because I make sense, but because they make sense because they are coming from someone behaving in a way that makes us think that they must.

Does this help at interview? Sure. Does it help when you go for promotions? Of course. Does it mean that others have anything less to offer. Not at all.

I’m not sure I have any answers, I’m not sure I have even formulated the questions. The great thing about having a blog is that I don’t have to. This isn’t a text book, you’re not paying, I’m not Ulrich.

But it seems to me that the world of work is still heavily prejudiced towards certain ways of being, certain behaviours, certain mannerisms that are predominantly associated with the middle class, white guy like me. Which means that I might not be here because of what I do, but because of who I am.

And maybe, so are you.


  1. Sarah Miller (@whippasnappahr) · March 18, 2013

    Love this Neil! Self awareness is the biggest indicator of a great leader in the making. Did you see the study that came out late last year on why women speak drastically less than men in groups? http://news.byu.edu/archive12-sep-women.aspx I think this finding could be a good way for individual assessment in group situations to be balanced: “There is an exception to this rule of gender participation, however. The time inequality disappeared [was] when researchers instructed participants to decide by a unanimous vote instead of majority rule.” When there is unanimous vote, it’s slower, but at least everyone’s had the chance to actively participate in the decision.

  2. Joe Kennedy · March 18, 2013

    Good piece Neil. Sounds a lot like John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Theory_of_Justice), although slightly less reactionary!

  3. mastersorbust · March 18, 2013

    Neil, interesting points and not just how recruitment and development processes are often inherently skewed against introverts!!

    I sat in a room on Friday facilitating a discussion that will lead to some important decisions that will impact a lot of people and looking around the table the views and inputs were all middle class white men – hardly representative. Worse still, they all with one exception had a similar functional background so the group think was alive and well. I may have disrupted, I can’t remember 😉

  4. dougshaw · March 18, 2013

    Thanks Neil. I don’t think there’s any maybe about this. It happens, a lot. I think an awful lot of hiring goes on in our own image. The roots of what you are seeing and what Rob has commented on probably go back to some pretty uncomfortable history and also, are a reminder that when all is said and done, we are a lot more reluctant to give stuff up and accelerate equality, than we may at first think. And yet – there is plenty of research to suggest that a more equal society is better for everyone. The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson looks deeply into this, here’s the link to the book


  5. Rick · March 18, 2013

    Interesting thoughts.

    Did you see this piece about a CV being ‘too ethnic’?


  6. Jacob Sten Madsen · March 18, 2013

    For so many things being said and done in corporate (and to some degree in private as well) lives, it is about ‘playing the game’ Many people have through their lives, background, upbringing and formed through education and work life scenarios been taught how this works, what the norms are and how they are played. For that reason and for many years that has been what we are meant to believe to be the ‘way things are done’ how we assess and judge others. Only in rare instances do we see true breaking of norms, going totally opposite and seeing things from a different perspective. Some times these ‘changed manners’ are genuine, sometimes they are a front for making something appear different to what it really is.
    We have as humans and as parts of bigger or smaller set ups been formed into thinking in certain ways and according to certain norms. The still and likely for a long time yet under representation of women in business is a direct result of these norms and thought patterns and are played out every single day across the globe in any company/organisation. The solution is to introduce structures, systems and processes that ensure that we attempt to break out of these norm sets, that we pay attention to those that may not be he loudest and most active, that we build engagement models and structures that ensure that evaluations are built on criteria outside our norm sets and that we pay attention and due respect to all sides and all manners of contribution and engagement.
    Not an easy task by any means, but unless we question ourselves and our own norm set, like you have done here Neil, then we will never evolve, never break out of the mould and the situations that so far in some aspects have seen us repeat ourselves and make the same mistakes.
    Time for change, time for challenging status quo and push the boundaries.

  7. @TalentInnovUK · March 18, 2013

    Neil – it is brilliant that you felt this way as we can really make a difference now with this type of knowledge and self awareness.
    We have found exactly these issues when studying data from 360 feedbacks. The findings demonstrated that there are several competencies where females see women as being stronger than men (largely those that have a strong element of relationship with others, including the interpersonal aspects of leadership), and others where men see men as being stronger principally “challenging” competencies such as innovation and personal impact – personal impact covers behaviours such as “making a strong first impression”, “expressing views with confidence”, “being visible acrosd the organisation” and “making their presence felt”.
    We also found that areas where women see themselves as being weaker (relative to how their colleages see them) were the same areas where males generally see females as being weaker than men. It is almost as if women’s self-perception is an amplified reflection of men’s views.
    We all need to work at mitigating women’s lower self-confidence in the areas of “male” strength. http://www.talentinnovations.com/downloads_file.asp?fileid=44

  8. teagoemplaw · March 18, 2013

    Great post Neil – really good to see people engaging extensively in the discussion prompted by your words.

  9. Chris aka new_resource · March 18, 2013

    No doubt about it – who you are and who you are born to makes up a portion of your life opportunities – but hey, you can’t worry about it – just keep being good!

  10. Meg Peppin · March 18, 2013

    I think if we do no more than ask ourselves these questions, allow some space to explore them, and to share our thoughts, this can create change through heightening awareness.

  11. victoriomilian · March 18, 2013

    I think that having the ability to critically think, communicate, and challenge convention is going to be a valuable (though not always appreciated) skill set. Adding to that is the ability to remain self-aware, particularly around one’s explicit and implicit strengths and weaknesses. If we’re not careful, the decisions we make may have far reaching consequences. This is something I touched upon in a recent post: http://www.victoriomilian.com/2013/03/perception-is-powerful.html

    Thanks for the post, Neil!

  12. victoriomilian · March 18, 2013

    I think that having the ability to critically think, communicate, and challenge convention is going to be a valuable (though not always appreciated) skill set. Adding to that is the ability to remain self-aware, particularly around one’s explicit and implicit strengths and weaknesses. If we’re not careful, the decisions we make may have far reaching consequences. This is something I touched upon in a recent post: http://www.victoriomilian.com/2013/03/perception-is-powerful.html

    Thanks for the post, Neil!

  13. A great and very candid article Neil. I was watching the ‘Inside Gatwick’ omnibus on TV yesterday – fantastic for real life lessons on HR and Operations. Clearly evident in the programme was the lack of ethnic minorities in any of the key positions, infact even in the front line staff featured in the series. It dawned on me how this is clearly not a reflection of the multi-cultural society in which we live in and is often promoted by the politicians. It is a worrying situation for someone like me that will be re-entering the job market and know I have a lot to offer but will likely not be given the opportunity to show what I’m capable of because of the ‘mental’ selection which might disqualify me before I’ve even walked through the door.

    By sharing this article I believe you have sown a seed in everyone, including myself, to be less harsh when making assessments/decisions on others, given whatever scenario (I have a Uni peer assessment coming up soon! )

  14. Pingback: Weekly reMix 3/22/2013 | HR reMix
  15. Flora Marriott · March 22, 2013

    Neil, have you read a book called The Mismanagement of Talent? It’s a good few years old now, but is still relevant. It’s based on a study of graduate assessment centres – and studies the effect of class and upbringing upon selection and also how recruiters bring unwitting bias into what they believe is an objective process. One of the findings was that the middle class students were more adept at social aspects such as simply making small talk with assessors during breaks.


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