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Shirley Leung

To diversify Boston, we need more white men who can jump

When the invite arrived in thousands of e-mail boxes across the city this month, you couldn’t help but chuckle: a diversity event honoring “white men who can jump.”

My first reaction: Oh please, don’t white guys get enough attention in this town? They already run everything from City Hall to The Boston Globe. Show up at a business gathering, and if you’re a minority like me, you feel outnumbered 100 to one. But Colette Phillips, the black public relations maven organizing next week’s event, is trying to make a statement here, and it’s an important one that gets lost when we talk about making Boston’s leadership ranks more diverse.


Like it or not, white men are still in charge, and change needs to start from the top. We can make them feel guilty or we can remind them that they — perhaps more than anyone — can change the game.

“In Boston, we need to create a new normal — white men at the table,” said Phillips. “You can’t talk about inclusion and exclude.”

Phillips echoes a study published last year that found that one of the biggest challenges white men face in leading on diversity is they feel excluded. The report — by David Thomas, dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and the Seattle consultancy Greatheart Leader Labs — was called the “White Men’s Leadership Study.”

It sounds like a skit from Saturday Night Live, but it was a real survey of 670 corporate leaders. Another key finding: white men thought they were doing a lot better on diversity than other respondents. OK, we probably didn’t need a study to figure that out, but the gap is striking: 45 percent of white men gave themselves positive ratings on diversity efforts compared with 21 percent of women and people of color.


So who are these white men who can jump? Among the 12 being honored, some are well known, such as Boston Federal Reserve Bank president Eric Rosengren, Mayor Marty Walsh, and my boss and Red Sox owner John Henry. Others are unsung champions, such as Eastern Bank chief operating officer Bob Rivers and Massachusetts General Hospital chief executive Peter Slavin.

In the decade Slavin has run MGH, the number of minorities in senior management has grown to 6.3 percent from zero. Concerned about disparities in health care between minorities and whites, Slavin, a primary care doctor, began tracking how the hospital cared for diverse populations. Such measurement helped increase the number of colon cancer screenings among Spanish-speaking patients at MGH’s Chelsea center, who now get checked at a better rate than English-speaking ones.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Slavin.

At Eastern Bank, Rivers pushed to diversify the 120 trustees and corporators who act as advisers to better reflect the customer base. Five years ago, that group was 92 percent white male; today it’s close to 60 percent. (Phillips is one of the new trustees.)

Rivers said Eastern recruits newcomers by not just attending events “where all the white power structure goes.”

Walsh made a big deal out of appointing people of color to leadership positions. While he acknowledges that more needs to be done, nearly two dozen minorities now hold key positions across his administration.

But he still sees what I see at business events — a sea of white male faces. “If we change the mindset in City Hall, you will see the mindset change in the business community as well,” said Walsh.


For Boston to get on the winning side of diversity, we not only need white men who can jump and shoot, but also pass to get the ball into different hands.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung