Recently, dictionary.com named “allyship” the word of the year for 2021. Though existing since the mid-1800’s, the online reference site recently added and then honored the term late last year, after observing steep increases in online word searches for “ally" in 2020 and 2021. This trend reflects changes in society especially after the death of George Floyd in 2020 that resulted in businesses and organizations increasing their efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
At Pulsely, we also saw our clients embrace Allyship as a priority in 2021. After assessing their Inclusion Competencies, they had a tangible measure of Allyship as one of 7 competencies necessary to support a culture of inclusion. Scores on this competency allowed them to differentiate employees with an “Advocate” mindset and enabled clients to identify these employees as change agents inside their organizations. It also allowed them to make the actions of allies more visible and tangible.
According to dictionary.com, allyship is “the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.”
While allyship may be a noun, developing more equitable and inclusive workplaces for everyone requires the action of allying - at both an organizational and individual level.
Allyship Starts With Listening, But Activates With Action.
Allyship in the workplace begins with intentional listening. It requires each of us to drop our assumptions and begin by opening to witness the experience and reality of another as shared through their voice, not as we might perceive it to be.
“Fostering an inclusive, equitable, and diverse workplace through allyship is a lifelong, imperfect journey starting with active listening, research, and education. Allyship is not about the ally,” notes authors for the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC). “Instead, the ally must listen to those who have been marginalized with the intent of debiasing their own world. What are your underrepresented colleagues and employees saying, what do their words mean, where are those words coming from, what do they need and want in terms of work, career paths, personal lives? As an ally, listening to different or new perspectives is an essential first step in creating effective initiatives.”
Allyship is highly relational and iterative - it involves spending both time and energy engaging to understand not only the experience those in a group are commonly having but also the mechanisms, in which we may be unconsciously complicit, that continue to perpetuate that experience. It also means understanding that not everyone has the same privileges and opportunities to succeed at work.
As written in Idealist, “allyship in the workplace means recognizing the privilege that members of majority groups have in a professional context—and using that privilege to aid in the dismantling of systems and processes that prevent colleagues from having equal opportunities.”
Beyond understanding what dynamics are at play, allyship calls for a willingness to explore, challenge and confront discriminatory approaches and actions (most often unintentional) - to be an active upstander rather than simply an informed, but passive, bystander.
Allyship is not about what you know. It’s about what you do with what you learn, why you truly do it and how consistently you show up to do it.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
― Maya Angelou
Authentic Allyship or Performative Allyship?
As written by Shelley Zalis in Forbes, “allyship disrupts the cycle of inequity.” Real allyship fosters inclusive company cultures that shift the existing power dynamics to create a more equitable workplace.
Research into allyship has revealed that people who work in organizations where allyship is encouraged are twice as likely to feel they belong and nearly twice as likely to be satisfied with their workplace culture and their job role. Underrepresented groups are 1.5 to 2x more likely to feel safer when they have an ally in the workplace. Further, employees in actively inclusive environments are more likely to go above and beyond, less likely to leave and more likely to speak highly of their workplaces. Research has shown that active bystander behavior (such as micro-affirmations) can catalyze a culture towards more inclusion.
According to a Bentley University report on elevating allyship, “Allies embrace their responsibilities with humility and a learning stance…They amplify and center the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and other identities. They work to de-center themselves and to hold themselves accountable.”
Ally status is not self-ascribed but is instead acknowledged by others who have experienced the impact of your support or influence on their lives. For example, McKinsey’s & Lean In’s Women in the Workplace report showed that three quarters of white employees considered themselves allies of women of color but far fewer took basic actions - such as mentoring or giving clear credit to women of color for their ideas or work - to support that identification.
Whereas authentic allyship amplifies underrepresented voices and creates more equitable opportunities for success, performative allyship just amplifies majority voices as they pay lip service to inequity without leveraging their positions of privilege or resources to create real change. Even if it comes from a place of good intent, without an understanding of how to leverage their own influence, only that individual benefits as they are seen as aligned with a cause and are distanced from scrutiny. Performative allyship is not only counter-effective, but also disingenuous and harmful, as it actively works to maintain the status quo of power and privilege.
Organizationally, three major signs of performative allyship as highlighted by Catalyst are lack of diversity at the top, a failure to track or talk metrics and lack of leadership followthrough on equitable workplace commitments.
Being seen to promote diversity and inclusion has nothing to do with actually allying with marginalized groups. Real allyship is not about social image or personal benefit, save the ultimate realization that cultural inclusion is a win-win and that will benefit everyone.
Building Advocacy through Active Allyship
At an organizational level, cultivating a culture of allyship in action could include:
- actively listening to understand the experiences/needs of marginalized groups
- normalizing calling out inappropriate behavior
- creating space for and amplifying underrepresented voices
- sponsoring and mentoring for underrepresented individuals
- using inclusive language
- being transparent with compensation
- making metrics around diversity, equity and inclusion visible
- exploring alternative recruitment approaches
- assigning diversity and inclusion accountability to everyone
- visibly championing allyship, in example and action, at top leadership
Writing for the American College of Emergency Physicians, Dara Kass MD makes some strong distinctions between ally, advocate and accomplice: “An ally is someone who is not a target of oppression but still works to end it. An advocate is a person who publicly supports a change or policy. An accomplice is someone who supports the target of oppression when they are going out on a limb.”
While allyship often involves showing up in the moment to disrupt dynamics of inequality or discrimination, advocacy seeks to proactively change the systemic dynamics that create inequitable opportunities in the workplace, so those moments occur far less often.
According to Catalyst, allyship is “actively supporting people from marginalized groups”. Whereas advocacy is “proactively taking action and building relationships within and across groups to drive positive, structural change on a systemic issue”.
At a practical level, whereas allyship might mean actively supporting marginalized voices to be heard and credited within a Zoom meeting, advocacy would mean proactively challenging the way Zoom meetings are conducted that creates the imbalance of voices in the first place. Advocacy envisions and commits to the greater systemic changes that would mean a starting line of more equitable workplace opportunity.
Here’s a challenge for your organization: If “allyship” was the word of the year in 2021, can you make allyship a cultural priority in 2022?