When we leverage privilege at work to uplift those with less power, the payoff is increased productivity and a happier work culture.
Written by Lisa Weseman | Illustrations by Branden Barker
We devote a third of our life to work — often spending more time with our co-workers than we do our own families. With so much time invested in these relationships, it’s only natural that our colleagues often begin to feel like a family. But how do the family dynamics work in a business setting — particularly when the work “family” represents a diversity of identities, backgrounds, and cultures?
To address these issues, many companies are developing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs with good reason. A 2018 McKinsey report shows that companies with diverse staffs are more likely to achieve above-average profitability while less diverse organizations are 29% less likely to find that extra success.
The gap between corporate diversity programs and individual experiences is still wide. 2019 Deloitte research shows that more than 60% of people feel that bias is still present in their workplace. The good news? The same study shows that allyship can be the “missing link” needed to create inclusive organizations with the result being increased employee satisfaction and performance. But what does allyship actually look like in the workplace and who should become one?
The Many Faces of Privilege
According to the experts, allies are people with privilege or power who leverage it on behalf of those with less. Melissa Morgan, a long-time DEI consultant and trainer who serves as Communication Director for Long Beach Forward, a California based non-profit dedicated to creating healthy low-income communities of color, says identifying those with privilege isn’t difficult. “It is unearned power, access to decision-making, automatic inclusion. In a workplace setting, who runs the culture and informs the culture? Who’s listened to, who’s heard?”
Many women in the workplace have a sense they don’t hold privilege, because of historic inequities in pay and leadership roles compared with men. But Melissa says women should examine their identities around race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, nationality, and disability status. “These are things where you can also stand in a place of power and privilege, even as a woman,” she adds.
Me, an Ally?
So who can be an ally? Basically, anyone ready to use their privilege to promote and advocate for others.
“In business right now, we’re focused on, how do we create a space of safety, trust and belonging where everyone feels like they truly belong? And I believe allyship is the core of doing that,” says Dynasti Hunt, a consultant who helps organizations and leaders think about how to embed DEI practices at an operational level. She says allyship is about finding ways to even the playing field so that the benefits given to the privileged are shared with everyone.
Isabelle Moses, a DEI consultant and Senior Advisor for Faith in Action, a national community organizing network focused on creating a more equitable society, says the key to allyship is questioning the status quo.
“Are there unintended patterns that are being repeated, but that might be preventing certain people from having the full access to opportunities within the organization? Because you’ve kind of gone into sort of a default mode?” Isabelle asks. “Who benefits from those default behaviors, and who might not be benefiting from some of those default behaviors?”
Becoming an Ally
Each ally’s journey is different, but experts agree there are a few key steps to start the journey.
Form Authentic Relationships. “If you don’t have relationships with people who are different from you, it’s gonna be really hard for you to have a sense of empathy and connection,” Melissa says.
Isabelle says allyship requires deep relationships and understanding what’s important to your colleagues. “If there’s somebody that you see regularly, that you don’t know anything about them – that might be a clue you should take the time and actually get to know them as a human being.”
Educate yourself. It’s important to continually self-educate with books, podcasts, documentaries; but even more important to ask questions of the people you want to ally with. Listen more than you talk and believe the lived experiences of others.
For example, Dynasti says, “You see a lot of folks like, I’m going to create a scholarship or do some program for the community. And the community says, that’s not what we need…People make so many assumptions. But if you ask, then you will know.”
Build Trust. Recognize that women from underrepresented communities may have been disappointed by past workplace interactions, and trust needs to be built over time.
Dynasti shares the example of women whose support wavers in certain circumstances. “Some women show up and speak up in some cases, but then when their male counterpart pushes against it, it becomes a fend for yourself [situation].” She acknowledges there are a lot of emotions around privilege, but says you can build trust by taking in that kind of feedback without defensiveness. “How can you take in the things that you need to work on, work on them, and move forward?” Dynasti asks.
Decenter yourself. Don’t make it about you. Follow the lead of those you are trying to ally with. Dynasti says allies need to remind themselves, “I need to be able to go and speak out when it’s appropriate. But sometimes I just need to be there as a supporting person.”
“Ally is actually a verb. It’s shown in your actions.”
Allyship in Action
Melissa stresses that allyship is not something you can be, it’s something you do.
“Ally is actually a verb,” she says. “It’s shown in your actions.”
Allyship often starts with small individual acts:
Champion the work and careers of those with less privilege. Melissa says, “As a Black woman, I’ve had experiences with white Jewish women who, because of their background and Jewish identity, and cultural heritage and experiences with discrimination, oppression, and genocide, these women have stood up and been mentors for me. They’ve been able to open doors for me, write letters of recommendation, connect me to people and resources in ways that I needed access to, that they were able to have access to because of their whiteness.”
Call out inappropriate behavior, microaggressions, and unconscious bias. Dynasti says people who don’t speak up are passive rather than active allies. “I’m coming to the book club meeting at work, or, I always make sure that I extend an invitation to someone who is different than me to a conversation,” she gives as an example. “But when I see them experience a micro or macro aggression, when I see them experience an unfair power dynamic, or someone is not benefiting from a privilege that I may be, I don’t speak up.”
Amplify the ideas of underrepresented communities. Melissa says, “I’ve built a great working relationship with a woman who happens to be Latina, and is the parent of a child with disabilities. As we’ve gotten to know each other better, and we’ve shared our stories and experiences, I’ve learned about the difficult challenges that she and her family have had to work to overcome, to support her child who has disabilities. As she and I sat on work committees together, she would champion and be a voice for why it was really important for our work to include Black voices, to talk about anti-blackness, to integrate issues and education and be proactive around race issues and racism. And in turn, I was able to be that voice to champion people with disabilities and find ways to be inclusive, for example, in our HR, policies and practices and recruitment.”
Experts point out that true allyship goes beyond individual acts and takes on organizational systems. “If you’re just solving individual problems, but not looking at how the systems and practices continually repeat and replicate those patterns, that’s kind of more at the transactional and performative level,” Isabelle says. “We’re really seeking the opportunities for transformational change.”
Isabelle points to a compensation study her organization invested in to ensure that everyone on staff was being paid fairly and equitably and had excellent health and vacation benefits. “Some people got substantial raises…and that made a meaningful difference in some people’s lives. They were able to buy houses, or take care of family medical expenses, or maybe do fertility treatments that they couldn’t have otherwise afforded.”
She also encourages businesses to look at who projects are assigned to and why. “If they’re falling along racial or gender, or LGBTQ identity or other types of identity lines, that might be an opportunity for disruption.”
Melissa encourages looking at our own backgrounds may give us a hint at where our own unconscious bias may be creating exclusive systems and where to take action. “What are the dynamics of my position of power on other people that I may work with?”
She says looking at her own identity has helped her be more thoughtful about religious holidays and dietary restrictions, using LGBTQ inclusive language, ensuring that healthcare benefits include domestic partners, being mindful of the impacts of immigration status, and making sure restrooms are gender inclusive for transgender employees.
So What’s Stopping You?
Fear of making a mistake is one of the top barriers to allyship. A RightTrack study showed that 55% of people surveyed said they were too scared to talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace for fear of saying the wrong thing.
But DEI experts agree it’s better to say the “wrong” thing and learn from it, than sit on the sidelines – and it’s all part of doing the work.
Dynasti says learning to ally is like learning to ride a bike: “You don’t go out and ride a bike by reading all the articles in the videos and taking like 17 classes on how to ride a bike. You get on the bike, and then you probably fall and you hurt yourself, right? And it feels really bad in the moment. But you get back up, because you want to learn how to ride the bike, you get back on to fight until you get better at it. We’re all gonna make mistakes around it… [but] the more I do it, the more I’m gonna get better.”
“Fear of not being perfect or doing it exactly the right way gets in the way of doing anything,” Isabelle says. “Being willing to be uncomfortable is also really important.”
Though the business benefits of allyship in the workplace are clear, deep allyship must be personal.
Melissa says the goal is to become an “accomplice.” “That’s a person who’s picking up their engagement and taking being an ally to the next level. They’re not motivated by personal guilt or shame,” she says. “It has to be something that you have made a personal commitment to, and you’re doing some internal work reflection around. It’s part of your purpose in some way.”
“It’s kind of a different mindset, and it’s really about, we’re in this together, because these systems are not working for everybody. And until they work for everybody, they don’t work for anybody,” Isabelle says, making a distinction between allyship and the deeper commitment, being a “co-conspirator.” “Allyship is, how do I support you to get the best that you can get within this existing broken system? But being a co-conspirator is, how do we disrupt the systems to make sure that they truly work for everybody?”
She shares a quote from Lilla Watson, Aboriginal elder, activist and educator: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”