Advocacy vs Allyship: Understanding the Differences

Both allyship and advocacy play important roles in creating workplaces where people are able to be authentic and belong while having more equitable opportunities to fulfill their potential. But what are the differences between the two and how do they complement each other?

Allyship is an important component in a culture of inclusion. Advocacy is what put inclusion on the organizational agenda in the first place. 

Both allyship and advocacy play important roles in cultivating the momentum to confront barriers and biases, amplify underrepresented voices, connect people across differences, and value diversity as key to business success. Both contribute to creating workplaces where people are able to be authentic and belong while having more equitable opportunities to fulfill their potential.

What is Allyship and How it Manifests In the Workplace?

Allyship” is actively supporting individuals who encounter bias and may be discriminated against on the basis of their identity. An ally actively engages to stand up and support and be in solidarity with individuals of marginalized groups. When you are an ally, your alliance is to people and elevating those people.

Allyship helps to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace - and is one of seven necessary individual Inclusion Competencies for promoting inclusion. In workplaces where allyship is encouraged, people are more likely to report they feel a sense of belonging and are satisfied with the culture, and where underrepresented groups experience more psychological safety. 

An ally intentionally listens to the perspectives and realities of other individuals to get outside of their own worldview. Being an ally involves checking your own assumptions, taking stock of your relative position and privilege in the professional context, and becoming an active upstander in interrupting bias and shifting the power dynamics to amplify underrepresented voices and create a more equitable workplace.

Allyship might look like actively engaging the experiences and perspectives of marginalized individuals, joining ERGs, normalizing the calling out of potentially discriminatory approaches and actions, using and modeling inclusive language, creating space and opportunities for amplifying underrepresented voices, and sponsoring individuals from diverse groups.

Actively engaged allies may act to interrupt incidents of exclusion through approaches such as: confronting, questioning, clarifying, calling attention to stereotypes, diffusing or de-escalating harmful interactions, affirming or supporting individuals, as well as reporting incidents. 

Allies are often troubleshooters of inclusion: the culture is up and running and they are allied with underrepresented individuals in actively disrupting whatever is not working (speaking opportunities, microaggressions, in-group sponsorship) in the many day-to-day interactions of the organization. Allyship is active, or it’s simply performative allyship.

Who is an Advocate for Diversity and Why are They Important?

Advocacy” is proactively seeking to change systemic dynamics that create inequities in the workplace so that they occur less often. Advocates build relationships within and across groups to drive positive structural changes, affecting the policies and practices that give rise to discrimination. Advocates are allied to a cause and advancing that cause for everyone. 

Advocates are stepping back, identifying issues on a systemic scale, and considering how to re-envision the culture itself. Rather than confront exclusion at the level of symptoms, they seek to address the underlying causes. Advocacy is about impacting decisions and decision-making around how things are done in your organization, and how to create a more equitable workplace as the baseline. 

It’s likely that most advocates are already allies, or inherently allies, who see the potential for a bigger step-change in cultural dynamics. They are ready to put more skin in the game, because advocating meets confronting power. Advocates will put their own comfort on the line to raise the difficult conversations with key decision makers while challenging status quo dynamics and institutional discrimination, including that which they benefit from. They are actively seeking to change the way power, resource and opportunity is distributed in the organization. 

Advocacy might look like challenging entrenched processes and practices, raising intersectionality into the discussion, introducing new recruitment ideas to remove bias from hiring, asking to contribute towards advancing inclusion initiatives, offering skills and expertise to advance the interests of a group, calling for transparency around DEI metrics and compensation, or pressing to have DEI quantifiable goals included in performance metrics for leaders

Arguably, the more allies progress into advocacy, the more momentum your organization has towards inclusion. 

Addressing the Challenges Faced by Allies and Advocates in the Workplace

As you can see, it’s truly not about allies and advocates, as neither of those words can be self-ascribed. They become apparent only in presence and action. It’s about a choice to engage in allyship and engage in advocacy - two pillars of inclusion-building that individuals can step up to. In stepping up, there are always challenges to overcome - here are three and how organizations can support: 

  • Overcoming Fear of Being Penalized

One thing that keeps people from stepping up to active allyship is the perception that the potential cost of participating is greater than the potential benefit of doing so. Employees might be intimidated by the thought of time involvement, backlash, impact on relationships, status or reputation, and emotional energy. Rocking the boat, betraying the ol’ boys club or speaking truth to power can be intimidating. So can be the simple act of reflecting to a colleague who is operating under an unconscious stereotype in a conversation. 

But organizations can help inspire allyship by helping to create awareness around what inclusive behavior looks like and what it doesn’t look like, and encouraging behaviors that move towards inclusion. And leaders can model speaking up and taking risks from a place of moral courage - in fact, they’re expected to.

  • Overcoming Fear of Getting it Wrong

Fear of getting it wrong can paralyze potential allies and advocates. Allyship and advocacy require vulnerability and a growth mindset. It’s not about getting it right the first time, or every time, but about being open to the learning curve of getting better. Both require the confidence and humility (in alliance with a greater purpose) to withstand the discomfort that often comes with growth. 

“Allyship is actually more about the mistakes than the things that you do right,” said human rights advocate Maybe Burke, allyship trainer for the Transgender Training Institute. “It’s about how you deal with those mistakes and move forward.”

The more an organizational culture promotes a growth mindset as a virtue, the more spaciousness for allyship and advocacy to emerge.

  • Keeping Focused on Cultural Impact

Many people count themselves as allies without real actions to support allyship or being perceived to be allies by the groups they claim to support. Performative allyship keeps the focus on the guise of being aligned to supporting inclusion without fundamentally showing up as part of the change. 

Ultimately, allies and advocates have to rise to service while also getting out of their own way. Checking assumptions, removing defenses, and putting in the effort without personal trophies. Allies and advocates are not present to raise their own profile, but to support underrepresented voices to be heard at the center of the conversation more often, realizing that in the end, that action benefits everyone. If the motivation isn’t collective, it will turn the spotlight back on yourself, and negate the best intentions.

Organizations can emphasize and acknowledge the impacts created when individuals effectively serve as allies and advocates in support of inclusion. While there are differences, both allies and advocates can be powerful agents of inclusion. 

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