In the challenging work of supporting diversity in the workplace – and diversity as it relates to social justice more broadly – allies play a critical role.
But before exploring why allies make such a difference, it makes sense to begin with the question: what exactly is an ally?
The definition that most accurately captures my vision of a diversity ally is a person who joins with another in a mutually beneficial relationship. While ally relationships can sometimes be framed as a more powerful individual helping a less powerful one, my belief is there is much to be gained on both sides.
Why Do Allies Matter?
Allies matter on both a micro level and a macro level. For an individual, an ally can literally change the direction of someone’s life and in so many cases does: that teacher who believes in a student who is struggling at home against huge odds or that manager who gives a young woman the confidence to imagine reaching her most aspirational goals.
On a macro level, allies change the game by collectively redefining what is normal and acceptable. The 1960’s Freedom Riders were an important piece of the puzzle leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the engagement of those who are heteronormative has played an important role in expanding LGBT rights in recent decades.
Allies provide much needed help in shouldering the heavy load of driving societal change. They provide inspiration, energy, protection, resources and validation. They send the message that you are not alone.
What Does an Ally Look Like?
There is no one recipe for being – or becoming – an ally. Allies do a wide variety of things and come in many different packages. There are allies who are bold and confrontational and those who fly under the radar, quietly driving change.
Male allies described myriad ways in which men support gender equality, responding to problematic situations as they arise as well as working proactively to change norms. With the goal of stopping a male colleague from regularly interrupting women in meetings, a male ally could call out the situation in the moment or reach out to the individual in private at a later time.
Alternatively he could create meeting ground rules that normalize not interrupting others or make it a habit to pick up the thread of conversation and return the floor to the woman after an interruption.
What Do Allies Do?
While there is no one formula for being a diversity ally, there are clear behaviors and activities that are characteristic, as outlined below. You’ll also find examples with ideas for someone seeking to become a diversity ally.
1. Seek to understand the experiences of others:
Allies communicate interest in wanting to listen and learn, doing so in a way that’s respectful and honors the lived experience of others.
Examples: Read articles about families and consider the extent to which these articles reflect the experience of LGBT women and men. Ask women in your life how, if at all, gender has affected their work lives. Conversely, ask men how gender has, if at all, affected their role as a parent.
2. Observe with a fresh eye:
Allies seek to pay close attention, often beginning to develop a new lens and seeing things that previously were invisible. They see the power that systems and structures play in driving outcomes, previously seeing only individual choices and situations.
Examples: Watch who speaks and who listens in meetings at work. Think about the last five to ten people who have been promoted at work and see if there is a pattern.
3. Practice humility:
One of the biggest challenges in discussing inequity is the guilt people feel, or fight mightily to not feel, which puts them on the defense and unable to listen. Allies have a willingness to move out of their comfort zone and to manage their emotional responses so that they can listen to understand rather than to respond.
Examples: Consider what thinking about – racism, sexism, heterosexism – brings up for you and how you can put it in context. Participate in an activity where you are out of your comfort zone and reflect on how that makes you feel – powerful? effective? successful?
4. Are willing to reflect:
Allies observe their own thinking patterns and default assumptions. Becoming conscious of their own internal biases and tendencies enables them to interrupt automatic patterns, think more critically, and respond more effectively.
Examples: Take an Implicit Bias Test to explore your thinking biases. Realize bias is how everyone’s brain is wired and awareness is the first step to disrupting the pattern.
5. Engage as partners:
Allies get involved but are conscious to not take over. They engage in the spirit of walking beside those they are seeking to support and helping to amplify their efforts.
Examples: Attend an employee network meeting at your company to show your support and to learn. Participate in an activity for a group you want to support such as walking in a Pride Parade or attending a conference such as Fatherhood 2.0.
6. Avoid contributing to the problem:
With greater understanding of the challenges of diverse groups, allies become far more conscious of how their own behaviors may contribute to the problem, and act accordingly. If they are unclear about the impact of their behaviors, they ask for feedback.
Examples: Don’t get on the band wagon of stereotypes, woman always do this or men always do that.
7. Work to empower others:
One way allies do this is by responding as an advocate, in both subtle and more overt ways, particularly when others marginalize individuals [or groups.]
Examples: Don’t give oxygen or attention to the guy who consistently cracks sexual jokes. As a team leader, be proactive in ensuring women of color in the group [who face major challenges to advancement] get their fair share of stretch assignments.
8. Provide resources:
Allies might provide monetary resources to groups or causes they care about, but they also contribute their time and energy. They demonstrate support by sharing their social capital.
Examples: If someone’s viewpoint in a meeting is being silenced, interrupt and say, “I’d look to hear more about this issue.”
9. Support changes in policies, practices and legislation:
A powerful way to be an ally is to help change the structural norms that reinforce inequality.
Examples: Support equal rights for LGBT men and women. Look at suggested interventions focused on combating sexism, and suggest to your manager or leader an experiment to try one with your team.
10. Identify and act on where they can have impact:
No matter what one’s role, there are many ways to be an ally. The goal is to determine where you can use your influence to make a difference.
Examples: As a parent think about what messages you send through your words and actions about gender roles. As a manager, understand how much you impact the people that work for you. Step back and consider what would you change if your goal was to be an ally.
In a nutshell, allies educate themselves and work to proactively make a positive difference!