Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays. Thompson of The Diversity Movement was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2023 Southeast Award winner.

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I’m not frequently stunned or at a loss for words. However, when I saw the following survey results from LeanIn.org and SurveyMonkey on what men and women have experienced in the workplace, I felt a mix of anger and disappointment. The common denominator across these findings boils down to one word: fear.

– 60% of male managers in the U.S. and 40% of male managers in the U.K. are uncomfortable participating in common work activities with women, including mentoring, working alone or socializing together. The U.S. number is a 32% jump over the previous year.

– Senior-level male leaders are now far more hesitant to spend time with junior women than junior men across a range of basic work activities such as one-on-one meetings, travel and work-related dinners.

– 36% of men have avoided mentoring or socializing with a woman because they were nervous about how it would look.

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And from LeanIn and McKinsey’s 2022 “Women in the Workplace” survey, we see the consequences of the lack of support and fear:

– Women are dramatically underrepresented in leadership: only 1 in 4 C-suite executives is a woman. Only 1 in 20 is a woman of color.

As I roll these figures back and forth in my mind, I keep returning to what it means for creating culture-centric leaders and teams if male executives aren’t willing to actively engage and support women. The survey points to a level of dysfunction that makes it impossible to create workplace excellence. Simply put, great workplaces must support, promote and place women in important managerial and executive roles.

The study’s authors sum up the harrowing reality: “Now more than ever, we need men to actively support women at work. Instead, they’re pulling back.”


What we are fundamentally addressing is how fear is keeping organizations from being just and equitable. Tactically, the outcome of this fear is that women are not receiving the mentoring, sponsorship or opportunities that would enable them to achieve their career goals.

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I have drawn on these action items from my own leadership journey and commitment to building The Diversity Movement into a women-led organization. In my mind, issues central to the future of business must be addressed on a leader-by-leader basis by those who are committed to deliberate action. All the tips in the world, though, aren’t going to do much if you as a leader aren’t willing to authentically confront your own deepest biases and then work toward meaningful solutions.

These action items will benefit you regardless of where you or your organization is on its diversity, equity and inclusion journey.

Education – A critical first step is to acknowledge unconscious biases, which influence our perceptions and behaviors. We all have them, and they play a role in how we think and act. Thankfully, we can learn new ideas and behaviors based on education and understanding. The first step may be a full range of educational activities, from workshops and seminars to reading and guest speakers.

Unconscious Bias Training – If general education programming is the first step, then mandatory unconscious bias training for all leaders may be a crucial next step in helping male executives and managers mitigate apprehensions and ensure they have the tools to overcome hesitancy. Of course, you don’t want men to feel spotlighted for “bad” behavior, but a challenge this extensive requires direct action. The added benefit is that all leaders will benefit from unconscious bias training, so the overt attempt to fix one problem will have added value.

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Safe Space for Dialogue – Along with education, a fundamental move toward better understanding is creating a workplace where an honest exchange of experiences can occur. Honestly, if your employees and teammates believe that you aren’t open to the exchange, it will take concerted effort to build a trusting environment. Don’t let the challenge hold you back.

Structured Mentorship and Sponsorship – In some instances, the creation of formal mentorship and sponsorship programs will help men and women in the workplace by providing clear guidelines and expectations for male leaders. These programs can help bridge the gender gap, boost confidence and foster organic relationships between mentors and mentees. Equipping leaders with resources can boost their confidence and help them navigate mentorship successfully.

Celebrate Inclusive Leadership – Again, if we’re going to address a challenge this immense, we need to find ways to recognize leaders who are currently mentoring and sponsoring women. Sharing success stories in an authentic manner will highlight the enduring value of diverse relationships and how these efforts bring growth to both individuals and the organization.

Leadership Accountability – A culture-centric organization building a more resilient workplace must hold senior leaders accountable for creating an inclusive environment. Board members and c-suite executives should set diversity and inclusion goals, measure progress and reward those who are championing women leaders. Since the challenge is so deeply ingrained in current business culture, leaders might also establish feedback and evaluation processes to identify areas for enhancement and ensure that programs are relevant and effective.


Clearly male leaders have not responded to the diversity programming and initiatives that have been at the forefront for the last several years. Looking back on the survey results, I find it particularly egregious that men are recoiling from promoting and advocating for women leaders despite a number of studies and statistics that show how much more efficient, resilient, creative and profitable companies are that have women in upper leadership ranks.

We have to act now, because there are even greater challenges on the horizon. U.S. demographic data shows that between 2023 and 2031, women aged 25-54 will be the only segment of the population that is growing. If we cannot provide meaningful work and opportunities for this important cohort, then we have little chance of retaining our place in the global economy.

The time has come to put a stake in the ground and demand that individuals are held accountable. We must lead better and create opportunities for more women to join the managerial ranks. As male leaders, we have the power to create a stronger workplace. The time to act starts now.


Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 Southeast Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement to change the world. As TDM CEO, he has guided work with hundreds of clients and through millions of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.