Most of us want to be active and supportive allies, and we generally believe we are good allies. The Canadian Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) defines allyship as, “Rooted in the term “alliance”, an ally is an individual in a position of privilege or power who makes consistent efforts to understand, uplift, empower, and support equity deserving groups. An ally is not a member of the group, but seeks to stand in solidarity with an equity deserving group to end oppression, discrimination and/or prejudice.”
Author: Sophie Warwick
Unfortunately, many of us are not perceived to be the active allies that we intend to be. For example, a survey of 7,400 US adults conducted by Lean In reported that 80% of white employees view themselves as allies to women of colour at work compared to only 45% of Black woman and 55% of Latina women reporting that they have allies in the workplace. This indicates that we’re not actively supporting the group we are intending to, at least in a way that’s helpful and valued to those individuals.
To make meaningful change, work needs to be done by more than just the minority group. Everyone needs to be involved in equity, diversity, and inclusion policies and initiatives. Too often the group needing the support is the one doing all the heavy lifting to make positive change. So many women’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are exclusively, or at least predominantly women and non-binary folks, but men should be at the table as well. I would like to note the importance of safe and private spaces for minorities to connect and would suggest providing ERGs in the form of both support (minority group only) and advocacy (minority group + allies).
Many men believe in the initiative but can sometimes feel that they’re “taking over” by attending, or intruding in a space that they’re not welcome to. This mindset needs to change to shift the needle. Often those in the room are already actively participating in improving diversity in the workplace. Real change happens when those outside of the minority group are brought in to those meetings to hear and understand the challenges faced, and understand the value of making change.
In fact, the Harvard Business Review reported that 96% of organizations that incorporate men in their gender equity initiatives see progress in their policy implementation. In contrast, a mere 30% of organizations that don’t include men show progress in improving gender equity. Additionally, part of the goal of these groups is often to retain women but by adding a new, and often non-billable project to their workload, they are at an increased risk of burnout. Suddenly, the group in need of support is now at a greater risk of departure than before.
Engaging all genders and developing active allies is critical to making positive change in the workplace and fostering an environment conducive to retaining women. With International Women’s Day less than a month away, use these top 5 tips to become a more active ally at work.
1. Ask questions. It’s likely that you are passionate about the cause, but your actions might not be translating that mission in the intended way. For example, you may notice that it’s women who are consistently asked to take notes in meetings. It’s important that you’ve noticed and want to participate in making change. However, don’t assume you know what that action looks like. Someone may or may not respond positively to a confrontation or discussion during that meeting. Instead, acknowledge to the individual that you’ve noticed and ask how you can support them today, and if it were to happen again.
It doesn’t even need to be in response to an incident. Have you noticed that there are few women at your workplace, or at senior levels? Ask a women colleague if they’ve noticed too (I’m sure they have) and if there is more you could do to advocate for change. Learn how to be supportive by asking important questions.
2. Don’t rely on others to educate you. This may seem contrary to the last tip, but that’s not the case. Asking questions is a great way to show your support and to sometimes hear important feedback, but don’t rely exclusively on the minority group you’re trying to support. It isn’t their job to educate you. Consider that they may be burning out from fighting the same fire every day. Be patient if someone doesn’t want to talk. It’s not their responsibility to teach you.
Listen and learn but do your own homework too. There are infinite resources available to learn about equity in the workplace in the form of podcasts, journals, books and more. Don’t discount fiction either (being considerate of who the author and voice is). Some of the most powerful learning I’ve done is from novels, where the author’s voice and experience shines through fictional characters.
3. There is no “one size” fits all recipe to being an ally. Recognize that everyone’s experiences are unique and the way you support one colleague may vary from how you support another. One person may want to talk it out and debrief if something is bothering them, while another may want to block it out and digest their experience privately. Respect their needs, and again, don’t assume that you know what those needs are.
4. Be active in making positive change. Now it’s time to create an action plan that suits your environment and the individuals you’re trying to support. It may be in the form of speaking up for someone in a meeting, advocating for policy change, or just being there and listening. Create a plan of steps you can implement into your daily routine that are tailored to support your team members. There is power in numbers and it will also indicate to the rest of your team that improving gender equity in the workplace is everyone’s problem to solve.
It can be uncomfortable, yes, but this is important work and essential to making positive changes. If you’re preparing for an upcoming discussion, see Having difficult conversations at work and Get comfortable with being uncomfortable for tips.
5. Join an Employee Resource Group (ERG). And more importantly, be an active member! There is often a fear of “taking over” if you’re not a member of the intended group. That mindset needs to be put away. Yes, if your workplace ERG is hosting an event for International Women’s Day perhaps you may not want to demand to be the keynote speaker. Instead, offer to write-up and send out the invite (displaying to staff this is for all genders and it’s important to you), order the refreshments, or help coordinate any speakers/panelists. Whatever it is, you’re helping to alleviate some of the burden that sometimes falls too heavily on the individuals needing support. And, you’re showing up and helping out.
Alvarez, L. (2020, August 24). Over 80% of White employees see themselves as allies at work, but Black women and Latinas disagree. Retrieved from Make It: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/21/over-80percent-of-white-employees-see-themselves-as-allies-but-black-women-and-latinas-disagree.html
Inclusion, C. C. (2022, January). Glossary of Terms. Retrieved from Canadian Center for Diversity and Inclusion: https://ccdi.ca/media/3150/ccdi-glossary-of-terms-eng.pdf
Smith, W. B. (2018, October 12). How Men Can Become Better Allies to Women. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2018/10/how-men-can-become-better-allies-to-women