Learning to Speak Up for Equity In the Workplace

The moment often passes before you realize what’s happening: You’re in a meeting when a colleague says something that makes you uncomfortable. They meant to be funny, but the comment is inappropriate. You’re stunned. Should you speak up?

The meeting goes on, but you keep thinking about what they said. Did you misunderstand the situation? Are you overreacting?

Women and people in minority groups have dealt with this inner dialogue for decades, some vocally and others quietly. Today, as awareness of workplace inequity and discrimination grows, more people are speaking up.

Men and members of other majority groups are being forced to confront uncomfortable realities about acceptable behavior in the workplace. But instead of advocating for women and other minorities, some of those in positions of power are leaning out.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, one-third of 1,000 executives surveyed reported they significantly changed their behaviors at work to avoid the perception of sexual harassment. While a promising statistic, these changes sometimes translate for women and other minorities as missed career opportunities. More alarmingly, Bloomberg reported that some men have adopted a strategy of avoiding women at all costs “to protect themselves.” Again, this can make career advancement even more difficult.

Bernice Ledbetter, EdD, believes the reason more people don’t speak up to become advocates is “a kind of parity of fear.”

Ledbetter is practitioner faculty of organizational theory and management and director of the Center for Women in Leadership at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, and she works specifically with men in the workplace.

“[There’s a] general sense of, ‘I’m not sure how I’m going to be perceived, so I better not say anything,’” she said. 

But the reality is that men and other majority group members still hold many of the key decision-making roles in organizations. White men make up 72 percent of corporate leadership at 16 of the Fortune 500 companies—the only 16 that release data on employees’ race, gender, job category and management level. Around 73 percent of their senior executives, both men and women, are white. And of the 5,440 seats on Fortune 500 boards, 3,763 (69.2 percent) belong to white men (PDF, 1.5 MB), based on a 2016 analysis of 492 companies.

In the past few years, diversity and inclusion gains in the workplace have leveled out:


of the Fortune 500 companies had female executives in 2018, down from 6.4 percent in the previous year.


of LGBT employees have reported experiencing employment discrimination in the past five years despite a new emphasis on inclusive policies at Fortune 500 companies.


of organizations with more than 25 employees had disability hiring goals (PDF, 689 KB), while 57 percent had hiring goals for other kinds of diversity.

If businesses want to continue making progress, experts say they’ll need all voices in this conversation. By encouraging all team members to contribute to these initiatives, companies build cultures of trust and respect. 

Business@Pepperdine explored common fears around speaking up and how team members—in both majority and minority groups—can overcome them.

Four Fears About Speaking Up and How to Overcome Them


It’s not my place.

Members of a majority group may hesitate to get involved in diversity and equity efforts because they lack what organizational psychologists call “psychological standing.” In other words, they feel it’s “not their place” to speak up—even if they care deeply about the causes themselves.

What Can Help?

Learn and listen (for those in a majority group).

It is your place to support initiatives you believe in, even if you don’t have firsthand experience with workplace discrimination or inequity. Still, remember that you are not an expert on other people’s experiences. Instead of trying to come up with a new solution, amplify the initiatives that already exist. Find out what efforts are already in progress and where your influence could actually help.

Model good behaviors (for managers, executives, and senior officials).

A manager can make speaking up the norm rather than the exception or a cause for anxiety. Speaking specifically about the gender dynamic in the workplace, Ledbetter said progress requires “senior men modeling the way of how to interact productively and positively and professionally with women.” That goes for any senior position, of any identity. A manager can give direct reports an example to emulate, helping them feel more secure in their actions.

Offer an explicit invitation (for those in a minority group). 

Invite those who don’t feel they belong at the table to join it. Affirm the appropriateness of their voices in the conversations and highlight their stakes in the issue. It’s important to remember that there’s also a time and place for groups made up only of those in a minority.


People will have negative opinions.

People are likely to have strong reactions when you speak up for a group or cause in which you have no personal stake. Your well-intentioned actions may be met with surprise, suspicion, or even anger.

Expect emotions (for those in a majority group).

Discrimination and harassment are painful realities for many people, and having conversations about workplace equity can stir up unpleasant memories. These emotions, though they may be directed at you, are not ultimately about you. They are about a larger societal problem that you and your majority group may benefit from.

Remain present for your colleagues’ pain (for those in a majority group).

Stay in the room, even if staying is uncomfortable. Listen and let the person in pain talk. Tell them that you hear them.


I’ll be misunderstood.

Those in a majority group may struggle to speak up in places they do not have psychological safety—the freedom to speak and act and be oneself without fear of negative consequences.

“Some are reluctant to speak up to assist women in the career advancement for fear of being misunderstood,” Ledbetter said. When anyone in a work environment feels they don’t have the standing to speak up, everyone misses out on opportunities to form meaningful relationships with colleagues and mentors.

What Can Help

Practice articulating why you care (for those in a majority group).

Explaining why you are offering support in order to make your motives clear. 

“Likely [your] attitudes and beliefs are driven by experiences and data,” said Rebecca Ratner, a psychologist and business professor at the University of Maryland. By providing this reasoning, you can prevent misunderstanding.


I’ll say the wrong thing.

Today, there is a greater public awareness and acknowledgment that harassment, discrimination, and microaggressions happen. While this is a positive development overall, Ledbetter worries that we are creating a culture of fear around speaking up—and this could prevent those in positions of influence from speaking up at all.

Be equitable and unbiased with corrections (for everyone).

Anyone can be objectified or put down by others’ words, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. We all need to be held to the same standard of respect.

Citation for this content: Business@Pepperdine, the online Master of Science in Management and Leadership from Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School.