The word “allyship” has been showing up more and more inside and outside the workplace. Building more diverse and creative workspaces has become a priority for many companies and in doing so, a lot of them have tried to nurture a more inclusive behavior. To educate their employees on how to practice allyship and really show up for colleagues who are members of underrepresented groups in an empathic and educated way.
The Red Shoe Movement spoke to five women from around the world about allyship and its importance in creating more inclusive and equitable workplace.
What is allyship?
Before we start, let’s get on the same page. Allyship is the practice of emphasizing social justice, inclusion, and human rights by members of an ingroup, to advance the interests of a group who is underrepresented or marginalized. Allyship is part of the anti-oppression or anti-racist conversation, which puts into use social justice theories and ideals. In the context of our conversation, allyship refers to the act of standing up for someone who is the recipient of mistreatment, discrimination, racism or any other ism as a result of being perceived as a member of an underrepresented group in an organization.
According to Sandra Barbosa, Vice-President of Human Resources for Latin America at Honeywell: “I really like the definition of an ally as a person who recognizes that they have privileges and makes a conscious decision to help other groups that have less representation. It can be in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and it is about how you take a personal position to help these groups.”
Dr. Lily Benjamin, a business psychologist and former cardiothoracic surgical critical care nurse with over 20 years of experience driving global, large-scale change management in Fortune 500 companies towards diversity and inclusion says that allyship is about being an unapologetic supporter of others.
“It doesn’t have to be necessarily about any type of diversity that is visual. It could be supporting disabilities, supporting women, supporting veterans. It could also be about the dimensions of diversity that are not visible, such a supporting the LGBTQ+ community on matters such as sexual identity. And it’s very important to talk about our identity and not preferences, because there is scientific evidence that we’re born the way we’re were born, it’s not a preference. So that is what allyship is, it’s about unapologetically supporting. And it’s important that you disclose your support.”
Identifying our Biases
Annerys Rodriguez, who is a part of the Global Diversity and Inclusion team at MetLife, believes that allyship is about advocating for others and lifting others, but “it’s also identifying your own biases and the things that you yourself have to learn, so that you can then identify ways and moments where you can be an ally to your colleagues, to people within your network, or to someone within your community.”
And Sandra Barbosa agrees. “It is very important that we take into account the prejudices and biases that each of us has as people,” she says. “I think it starts there, working with our leaders and choosing to support a culture of inclusion and diversity. We must find a way to help these leaders to become more aware. I believe that education is a very important way to do this and help employees acknowledge their biases through training and talks.”
“There are things that are so ingrained, especially from people over fifty, since we were raised in a particular way,” says Paula Dabbah, psychologist, psychoanalyst and part of the team that created “Exploring your priorities in this historic time,” a new program RSM. “It seems to me that shaking off those unconscious structures with education is very difficult yet, it’s very necessary in order to get rid of these prejudices.”
So, how do you know when you can be an ally?
“You know you can be an ally when you are in a position of power.” Dr. Benjamin answers. “Whether that is a given power such as the role in the organization or being a part of the majority group. So, when you see someone that is displaying less confidence or less power as a result of the organization’s culture, that is the moment in which you can advocate on their behalf.”
“I think that with allyship either we walk the talk, or we don’t do anything. We see a lot of people who talk a lot about allyship or pretend to be allies but then there’s no action behind it,” explains Dr. Amna Kooli, Patient Access & Heath Economics and Outcome Research Lead for Middle East and Africa at Novartis. “I think we should reach out to people, not just wait until they come to us, and listen because these people usually don’t speak up. Maybe they are afraid maybe they don’t know what to ask for or how to ask for it.”
“The moment that we decide to stay quiet is almost like seeing a crime and not saying something,” Dr.Benjamin agrees. “If we can create that conscience in our heads, that if I see something, I must say something without worrying about alienating myself from my peers, I am showing leadership and being a role model for colleagues that maybe want to speak up and don’t know how to. So, whenever you think that you may put yourself in the position of alienating yourself from your own group and decide to stay quiet, you’re actually choosing to be a part of the silence. And by being a part of the silence you are an accomplice to the discrimination or whatever it is this person is experiencing. You’re choosing between that or being a role model.”
What Is Covering?
It’s a practice by which employees conceal parts of who they are to better fit into a culture where these aspects can be considered damaging. Some people choose to keep certain details about their gender identity, background, physical characteristics or religious preferences that they perceive might have a negative effect in their professional development. Non-inclusive practices in companies everywhere has led to covering.
In the wake of 9/11, Dr. Amna Kooli, who was born in Tunisia and identifies as a Muslim, and at the time lived in Canada, decided to conceal her beliefs and roots whenever possible to avoid confrontations and uncomfortable questions. She was happy to say yes when people asked her if she was Latina or Italian, until a friend offered to buy her a cross so people wouldn’t ask about her background anymore. “That experienced led me to decide to talk about it, to be who I am and actually educate people,” she says.
Concealing things like sexual orientation is necessary in some places. For example, the LGBTQ+ community face legal challenges in the United Arab Emirates, where Dr. Kooli now resides. “You can’t disclose it, you can’t show pictures of your loved ones, you can’t talk about your private life except with people you trust, and it’s really hard for them.” So much so that some people prefer not to work in those countries at all.
What Is Passing?
The subject of “passing”, which sometimes can facilitate covering, was also brought up during the discussion. This term applies when a member of a less privileged group can easily “pass” as someone in the majority group. By choosing not to reveal, for example, Black or Latinx heritage when the tone of our skin allows it, passing and covering intersect.
Deciding not to divulge preferences and identity whenever possible is far from uncommon, not only in places like the Middle East, where homosexuality is legally persecuted, but also all around Latin America, and even in the United States, where homophobia and transphobia are still pervasive and can hinder someone’s professional development considerably.
Sandra Barbosa believes we have a long way to go until some companies can feel like safe spaces to members of the LGBTQ+ community. “We did a talk about what LGBTQ+ means and how to be an ally. The number of employees who contacted me after the event to say that they had never spoken about this in the company was incredible.”
Showing up for our Colleagues
But, how do we show up for our colleagues? Where do we begin?
“Do not assume that you know what it is to be in someone else’s shoes,” is Dr. Benjamin’s advice. “Ask questions, be comfortable not knowing exactly what it is like to be a member of that particular group, so that you can support. Be humble about not knowing and enable collaboration to open the path for the people that you are supporting.”
Rodriguez doesn’t think these moments can always be planned for, “which is why I think it’s on all of us to really learn about what’s going on around the world when it comes to privilege and what are those communities that are experiencing exclusion.” She also believes in signs that can let people know that you’re an ally, whether it’s a badge on your desk or a statement in your email signature. “It’s really going back to practicing inclusive behaviors and making sure that all the voices are heard. Paying attention to whose voices are overpowering and who’s sitting quietly in the corner.”
Paula Dabbah, a licensed psychologist, believes in the power of using one’s voice and actively seeking allies. “Staying quiet when you witness any kind of discrimination is an answer in itself. And always remember that privilege is not something static. All of us have them in specific situations.”
Finally, Dr. Kooli says, “I think speaking up and letting other people know that I can be an ally is the first thing that I usually do. I create the psychologically safe environment to let people know that they can speak to me or that if they need support I am there.”
Contact Red Shoe Movement if you want to bring allyship to your organization! We’ve developed a highly effective approach to make an ally out of every person in your team.