Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace is a big undertaking and change needs to happen at the organizational level through policies, systems, and processes. Senior leadership must express and live DE&I values by supporting inclusive environments and modeling ways to support diversity, including giving people from marginalized backgrounds platforms to determine what changes need to be made. As a manager or individual employee, having any influence on DE&I can feel out of reach.
One thing we can all do – regardless of position, level in the organization, how long you’ve been with the company, or what your work entails – is find opportunities to practice allyship.
Allies find ways to support, elevate, and advocate for members of a marginalized or underrepresented group, but do not identify as part of that group. Although there are many good resources about acting as an ally in the workplace (check out SHRM and Melinda Epler’s TED Talk), there are gaps.
For instance, resources often neglect that all of us have multifaceted identities. We are not simply majority or minority, white or black, male or female, 22- or 55-years old, wealthy or low-income, or straight or bisexual – we are the combination of many personal identities and the combination matters. Some parts of us are associated with dominant groups, whereas other parts of our identities may relate closely with an underrepresented group. And, the most salient part of our identity at any given time can change. Who we are and what groups we belong to (or not) change based on personal factors and the situation.
So, what does this mean for allyship? Parts of our identities – typically the parts associated with a dominant group – make the world easier on us because they give us more power, control, or influence. Other parts of our identity can make the world harder to navigate. Acting as an ally first requires self-awareness to recognize when you are in a position of power. When in a position of power, an ally is better able to create opportunities and safe spaces for others to have power and influence. There may be times when you can act as an ally for someone else and other times when you need someone to act as an ally for you.
Take Sharon, for example – Sharon has been employed by an engineering firm for about two years and works at the corporate headquarters. She is a young, white woman, and has her Ph.D. in engineering.
Sharon can act as an ally:
- Realized or not, Sharon has influence because she’s white. The company has a higher percentage of white employees than other racial and ethnic groups, especially in higher-level and leadership roles. Sharon can act as an ally to persons of color by realizing the impact of her race and educating herself on racial microaggressions.
- Sharon has power and influence because of her education. When Sharon is the only Ph.D. in the conversation, people tend to ask for her opinions first. Sharon has valuable expertise because of her training, but she’s not the only one who can (or should) weigh in on decisions. Sharon can serve as an ally to other teammates by inviting them into the conversation. The team may be missing out on valuable insights by assuming that the Ph.D. is the best source of information.
- Sharon has power because of the department she’s in. Sharon happens to work in a group that has leadership’s ear and is typically consulted when making big decisions. The company leans on this department a lot, putting Sharon in a position where she is in-the-know and asked for input. Leadership is likely missing valuable contributions from other departments. Sharon can be an ally by involving coworkers from other teams, especially when their perspectives and work is closely related to the decisions being made.
- Sharon has influence because she’s a go-to on her team. Being a go-to person and a high performer, Sharon has a lot of autonomy in her role and can sway decisions for her immediate team. Sharon can act as an ally for new teammates by delegating work and involving others who have potential to offer new ideas.
Sharon may need an ally:
- Sharon lacks power because of her gender. As in many engineering firms, most of Sharon’s company, especially leadership, is male. When Sharon is in a room with all male colleagues, many of whom are quite a bit older and more experienced than she is, Sharon doesn’t have as much power or influence. Sharon may need male teammates to act as her ally by asking for her input, directing the conversation to her, or inviting her perspective. Male colleagues can also restate or amplify her great ideas: “As Sharon pointed out, it’s important that we take X into consideration. I think this makes sense because . . .”
- Sharon lacks perceived credibility because of her younger age (note: stereotypes for older women impact power dynamics as well). Being a young woman, people assume Sharon can’t handle critical feedback, relies on emotion to make decisions, and lacks experience. These assumptions have big implications on her career development and the opportunities presented to her. Sharon’s manager and colleagues can practice allyship by intentionally focusing on her personal strengths and interests when considering who’s best for potential opportunities.
- Soon, Sharon may lack influence because she is going to start working remotely. When working remotely, Sharon may not have access to the same resources, conversations, and people that she currently does. Sharon may need an ally to bring her into decisions, continue to solicit her input, and keep her involved.
- As a young woman, many coworkers assume Sharon is transitioning to a remote position because she wants to get pregnant, and this may prevent her from taking on large and highly visible projects. Whether or not Sharon wants to be a mother, and whether or not she is pregnant, Sharon may need an ally to advocate that her value and contributions are not tied to life outside of work or motherhood. Allies can continue to bring her challenging work, give her critical feedback, and trust she can remain a top performer.
More than any one piece of Sharon’s identity, the ways her identities intersect affect how people perceive her and behave towards her. Being a young, white, blonde female (are you picturing Clueless or Legally Blonde?) leads people to make different assumptions than they would about a similarly young, white, blonde male colleague. Or, compared to a young, white, brunette female colleague. We all have multiple parts of our identities, and people who belong to more than one marginalized group are especially affected by their intersectionality due to compounding negative effects of stereotypes. Sharon provides one example (and a fairly privileged one), and it is important to acknowledge that some of her colleagues are going to be more greatly affected by intersectionality. Sharon’s young, Asian, female colleague, Xuan, or older, homosexual, black, male colleague, Samuel, face different assumptions and challenges.
When acting as an ally it is important to be open and listen to what other people need and want. Allyship isn’t about swooping in and saving anyone. Allyship requires educating ourselves about patterns and assumptions made based on people’s identities and recognizing opportunities to change our perspective and behavior.
Leaders and organizations need to own their part of improving DE&I initiatives and values (and monitoring progress!). But leaders can’t do it alone; collective behavior changes culture. You can also take ownership in supporting DE&I. Be on the look for times when you can practice allyship for someone else. And when you need an ally, consider who may be able to support you.
What does allyship look like for you? All reactions and comments welcome.