Old white man

Guest contribution by | 10.07.2023

Have you ever used the term “old white man” in a post and maybe even in connection with “typical”? Then you certainly know the negative, often angry reactions. Sometimes people point out that they do not correspond to the descriptive adjectives. Of course, using the term for another person is not a compliment, and so the reaction of those so described is not surprising.

What are the attributes of the “old white man”?

The term “old white man” is often used in a social context as a synonym for someone who does not reflect on his pronounced privileges, perhaps is not even aware of them, who has a (very) conservative attitude, is not very open to change and thinks that he is actually entitled to a lot in this world – after all, in his own perception he has done a lot to ensure that everything is so good here.

The attribution “old white man” is often used to accuse the other person of sexism and racism, a certain lack of reflection with regard to new developments and a rigid adherence to the rules of the previous system, which are extremely advantageous for the “old white man” and often even put him in a position of power.

In my observation, this attribution corresponds to the behavior of many men of my generation. But there are also “old white men” in female garb or quite young. They associate the term freedom with the preservation or even expansion of their rights; the costs others bear for this are hidden, perhaps even dissociated.

From a psychological point of view, I see the “old white man” as a shadow of the post-war society and the boomer generation, who built a flourishing economy and prosperity for all, but who blank out the associated (mis)developments, such as climate change, lack of diversity and poverty gap, unless affected themselves. They remain attached to the images of a bygone era, the car, the (then still) social market economy and male supremacy, with (luxurious) long-distance travel and cruises added over time.

There is another shadow – I suspect as a consequence of reunification, in which some have enriched themselves at the expense of others: the “coming up short” type, who gathers in groups and shifts the blame for their situation onto everything foreign that therefore needs to be fought, a kind of tribal thinking from a victim role.

“Old white men” are thus a phenomenon that we encounter again and again in social and political contexts. And of course we also find people with the corresponding attributes in active working life today – and not so rarely. However, the term is used there at most behind closed doors, perhaps also a consequence of the fact that the archetype has already retired or is about to leave, and that the image does not (any longer) evoke any associations with it.

The “old white man” in the corporate world

In the corporate world, the “old white man” is often still directly recognisable as such. Maybe he is not really old, around 50, but he is white and male. He acts visibly and is very aware of his importance. He uses his advantages quite publicly and acts in a culture-shaping way. Externally, he is open about diversity issues, which is probably a compromise to the mostly global set-up of companies. Women are paid less for comparable work and are not really promoted, except as “the better men”. Sexism on wallpapers or at company parties is sometimes tolerated, and those who rebel against it “shouldn’t make such a fuss”. Male-dominated networks are the basis for work and often also for power.

Sometimes I meet the “old white man” as a speaker for whatever, then his influence is relatively harmless, which he himself, however, sees quite differently – a tragic figure who is smiled at by many present.

Much more often, however, you find him in middle to higher management, mindful of his privileges and his position. Some changes endanger both, so he likes to block them, often together with his network. In change processes this is also called a clay layer, silo thinking is a possible indication of such structures. Whether agility, project orientation, matrix organisation, they are formally pushed, but are subordinated to this silo thinking. The bottom line is that little changes. One often hears in such companies that “once again a pig is being herded through the village”. The employees do not take change seriously, no matter under what label. The company system is resilient to change, a lot of energy for little effect, but the company can afford it (so far).

Systemically and presumably also realistically, this bears the high risk of eventually no longer being compatible with the environment – a kind of dinosaur existence. This lack of adaptation to a changing world is often compensated for by a belief in technology, so that one feels modern and not affected by what is described in the previous lines. Another indication of such structures is a high burn-out rate.

We also find many “old white men” at the top of companies. Together with other corporate leaders they form a network and support each other. They themselves or the lobby organisations they support have close ties to politics. In this way, they prevent new laws, rely on subsidies and thus also prevent the companies they lead or even entire industries from re-innovating. This is often supported by “old white men” in works councils. Here, too, the price in terms of the future is probably high.

Does the “old white man” also exist in medium-sized companies?

Yes, of course. Unfortunately. However, I encounter him differently in medium-sized and small companies. He often appears in camouflage, e.g. as a young, up-and-coming CEO, as a female manager or as a person with homosexual characteristics – in other words, anything but the visual image of the “old white man”, but an adaptation in behaviour.

From a psychological point of view, this is certainly also a consequence of the fact that in structures that were and still are shaped by the archetype of the “old white man”, careers are often made through adaptation. Moreover, many people do not want to be outsiders by being different. “Being there” meant and still means “being similar” and “behaving similarly”. This has consequences for culture and cooperation.

One coachee told me about her last workplace where a culture of young, white people prevailed with names like Sarah or Sven. People with foreign-sounding names were the exception. In collegial conversations, problems with people with a migration background were discussed many times, the tenor was pejorative. My coachee, herself with a migration background, was given information too late or not at all, team compositions took neither her competence nor her leadership role into account. A connection between behavior and pejorative attitude is obvious. And so they not only scared my coachee away, but also other people who stand for diversity, openness and thus also change, according to the coachee’s report even young and innovative client companies, for a prosperous future of this company certainly a risk not to be underestimated.

I learned from another coachee that her young, academic colleagues take the small weekend trip to European capitals and the SUV for private use for granted. To finance this, the parental budget is tapped and a career as a partner in this consulting firm is pursued. Here, too, the lifestyle is likely to have consequences for the corporate culture and client relationships, but also, quite fundamentally, for health and personal life: The partner role does not fall from the sky; according to my coachee, the pressure is extremely high for everyone.

We know from the press about the power structures of the “old white man” in media corporations. In this context, a coachee told me from her own experience that young, well-educated women who are enthusiastic about the task often leave the companies because they are not only deprived of motivation, but male employees are also paid much better – sometimes male employees earn more than their superiors. The fact that there are women in leadership positions at all is good for the external view of the company, but is ultimately not based on the hiring manager’s conviction that women make important contributions. Equal opportunities officers or HR processes to prevent such unequal treatment are probably in place, but if used, they may well become a boomerang for the reporter and subsequently little used.

From my own experience I know a small consultancy that employs mainly women consultants. The owner publicly describes women as creative and well suited for consulting jobs. At first glance this seems positive, but when I looked behind the façade I could observe a managing director who thought he was better at everything and anything than his female employees, even if they took on management tasks or had better technical competence. He made decisions alone and also built up pressure to perform – a classic patriarchal system. Preference was given to hiring young women because “they were still so impressionable” (free quote). Here, too, a completely different image is shown to the outside world and, of course, especially to the customers, than is actually lived inside. In this company, there has been a high employee turnover over the years; my client at the time remained with me as a consultant, probably not an isolated case. From a purely economic point of view, this is a risk that should not be underestimated. And the external façade also seems less intransparent than the owner intended.

The archetype of the “old white man”

Of course, not everything is bad about the “old white man”. I still experienced the archetype as a boss. He was a “hard bone” both internally and externally. He was a patriarch in a positive sense, because he mentored and provided for advanced training and promotion. If something went wrong, he protected his staff, no one could get past him. Internally, of course, there was trouble, but the external protection created a feeling of security.

The original type also strove for balance in internal relations. Sometimes one person got a bonus, sometimes the other. The criteria were essentially transparent and the effort was recognisable not to make personal preferences a criterion in the evaluation.

Later examples in leadership roles were more “permeable” to the outside world and were happy to let their colleagues go first, especially when things got critical. Sometimes someone from the team was called to account on their behalf. All this went under the heading of “delegated responsibility”, interestingly enough, there was much less of this when the delegates were successful. With regard to special payments, the principle of the watering can was advocated, or there were the boss’s favourites – the promotion of the like increased among them.

Conclusion

The patriarchal system in the work environment, which is the lifeblood for the “old white man”, seems extinct, but it endures. The visible attributes of the advantaged are often not white, old or man. The term is therefore less used in companies. The “old white man” is found in both small and large companies. The term is used to describe certain behaviours and thought patterns that come from a bygone era and therefore have a blocking effect on society as well as on the way companies work and interact with each other.

What I think we need instead is diversity, equal opportunities, fair pay and less ego. And companies should stop supporting male-dominated networks and hierarchies. For this to succeed, it is important that managers and decision-makers take responsibility and actively work for change.

If you personally encounter the “old white man” – in whatever guise – in your work environment, question his behaviour, decisions and actions. Of course, especially in this case, make sure that you do this bilaterally, respectfully and in an overall protected setting. And of course this includes empathy, listening and asking in order to understand.¹

It is the responsibility of all of us to overcome the “old white man” as a stereotype and together build an open and tolerant society – also in companies. Holding on to (thinking) patterns that are no longer appropriate today and rejecting change lead, systemically speaking, to a dinosaur existence where companies are no longer compatible with the changing world.

 

Notes:

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[1] One way to do this is to read these two blog posts:

Here you will find an overview of different types of questions for different purposes.

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Astrid Kuhlmey has published more articles in the t2informatik Blog:

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t2infomatik Blog: The undermind project term and its consequences

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t2informatik Blog: Letting go is the new way of planning

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Astrid Kuhlmey
Astrid Kuhlmey

Computer scientist Astrid Kuhlmey has more than 30 years of experience in project and line management in pharmaceutical IT. She has been working as a systemic consultant for 7 years and advises companies and individuals in necessary change processes. Sustainability as well as social and economic change and development are close to her heart. Together with a colleague, she has developed an approach that promotes competencies to act and decide in situations of uncertainty and complexity.