Let’s talk about Allyship
Have you heard of allyship? Though the word dates to at least the mid-1800s, it gained prominence the past few years and was dictionary.com’s word of the year in 2021. Here’s their definition:
allyship (noun): 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.
Over the past few years, social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and steps taken toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples focused attention on issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Consideration of allyship flows quite naturally from the growth in interest in promoting DEI in society and workplaces.
When companies and organizations formally adopt DEI policies, implementing them often falls to human resources. So, if you poke around the internet for information about allyship, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if allyship is some sort of top-down program that corporate HR departments implement to signal that the company cares about diversity. A stranger to allyship might get this impression when they read, for example, that “Allyship in the workplace is crucial for inclusion and equity.” As you’ll see, however, while companies and organizations certainly can promote and enable allyship to help foster a workplace where people feel a sense of belonging, individuals themselves decide whether to engage in allyship.
In this article we’ll take an in-depth look at what allyship is and is not. We’ll explore the business case for allyship. We’ll consider an individual’s allyship journey. And finally, we’ll touch on some of effective ally behaviour.
What allyship is and is not
The topic of what allyship is and is not was the opening question at a recent “Voices of Inclusion” panel discussion. Robert Mills, President, Bespoke Insurance, started the discussion off by saying allyship “is not about checking a box.” Jordan Pritchard, Director – Property, Claim Management, Canada Lead for the Disability & Allies Diversity Network at Travellers agreed, adding, “With allyship you’re looking for sincerity. It’s not performative. For example, if a land acknowledgement is all you do, that’s not enough.” Ray Chaaya, AVP, Employee Experience and Culture Manager at Zurich Canada offered, “Staying silent is not being an ally and not speaking up against microaggression is not the behavior of an ally.”
The co-host of the event, Angie Singh, Inclusion & Employee Experience Manager at Definity Financial Corporation, agreed with all the panellists and noted that what all the responses have in common is the idea that, “Though the dictionary categorizes allyship as a noun, you need to think about allyship as a verb.” The Center for Creative Leadership agrees, noting, “Fundamentally, when we’re working on allyship, we’re talking about ally as a verb, and not a noun: we’re talking about actions and behaviors that make an impact, rather than a label or a title that gives someone moral credibility or social capital.”
Singh explained that she purposely started by asking what allyship is not because, “If you get it wrong, it could do more harm than good.” She pointed out that as the world changes, language changes with it and, while it’s important to use updated terminology, “The challenge is when people lack understanding of what it really means, words like ally and allyship become buzzwords and that can lead to actions that harm, rather than help.”
The notion of performative allyship is what Singh was getting at. Inclusive Employers, a U.K. organization specializing in workplace inclusion, describes performative allyship as being when someone professes support for a marginalized group when there’s something in it for them. An example of this is posting on social media about a cause and receiving many likes and shares, but not taking further action to support the cause. The harm in performative allyship, according to Inclusive Employers, is that it “erodes trust and can lead to further exclusion and feelings of being repeatedly let down.”
Having considered what allyship is not, let’s consider what it is. Pritchard stressed the learning aspects that go into becoming an ally. As well, he pointed out there’s an element of soul-searching, as you challenge yourself and unpack your own power and privilege. “Be unafraid to pause, reflect, and resist taking that privileged perspective on things. But once you’ve made a commitment to do that, you’re ready for allyship as a verb,” said Pritchard.
Chaaya described allyship as thoughtful action with impact. He admits it can be daunting, or overwhelming for allies that want to support equity deserving groups but don’t know how to. But he also notes that, “Action doesn’t have to be on a large scale. It can easily be showing up on a local, palpable level, such as initiating team conversations around the meaning of Pride, or learning about what the gender gap may look like in your organization, or being an active member in an ERG [Employee Resource Group] at your company. These are all actions that may not be mammoth in scale but they can have an impact and can have a ripple effect that may lead to bigger changes,” he says.
Looking at allyship as a verb means that engaging in allyship is work, notes Singh. And if it’s work, why should someone care about engaging in allyship? Pritchard believes we should engage in allyship because we live in a world of the privileged and underprivileged and everything in between and we need to keep put pushing toward equality. He thinks we need to create a space to come together; a space where everyone feels they belong. A place to be heard and become better people.
Notion of power and privilege
Recognizing one’s power and privilege is relevant because those with power and privilege have an advantage in society just because of their identity. Mills points out that all of us have some sort of power, and allyship is about using whatever power you have to make a difference by, for example, speaking up when you’re in situations where oppressive language or behaviour is being used.
Awareness of what power and privilege you may hold can be difficult to appreciate. The Wheel of Privilege and Power (the wheel) is a tool that helps people identify the different forms power can take. The idea behind using tools like the wheel is that system change is premised on a foundation of creating awareness of the issue of power and privilege.
The wheel is comprised of a set of three concentric circles that are subdivided into 13 pieces of pie that represent identities that Canadians can hold – things like skin colour, gender, sexuality, neurodiversity, language, formal education, wealth, etc. Seeing these different identities on the wheel reminds people that everyone holds multiple identities. Within each piece of the pie (each identity category) there are identifiable sub-classifications that narrow toward the center of the pie. Individuals assess where they fall with respect to each identity category and the closer they are to the centre, the more privilege they have.
“When I first started thinking about power and privilege, I didn’t think I had much,” admits Carolyn Seward, Manager, Career Connections, Insurance Institute of Canada, and co-host of the Voices of Inclusion panel discussion. “But when I assessed myself for each identity on the wheel, I was surprised at how much privilege I do have. The wheel helps you to understand that everyone has different lived experiences,” says Seward. Singh likes the wheel because “It helps you see that people have complex identities that intersect in complex ways.”
This brings us to the concept of intersectionality. Singh explains that intersectionality is the concept that all oppression is linked. It acknowledges that everyone has their own unique experiences of oppression and we must consider anything that can marginalize people ‒ gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc. First coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw back in 1989, intersectionality was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2015. Intersectionality is just emerging in terms of implications for the workplace. Appreciating the complexity of each person’s individual identity is necessary to understand that they have their own unique lived experience. Applying an intersectionality lens means that you cannot look at oppression or social identification in isolation.
The business case for allyship
Creating an inclusive workplace increases employee satisfaction and impacts recruitment and retention. Given this, the business case for allyship is pretty clear. “Allyship and a culture that supports that is important – at the high level – for recruitment, retention, and development,” says Pritchard. “I’m just going to hone in one thing and I think it’s very simple: happy people work happily and people are most productive when they feel like they’re part of something that’s meaningful and that they’re supported by their employer. … To me the business case is obvious,” he says. The fact that some companies offer in-house allyship education programs is also an indication that there is a business case for companies to support allyship.
Supporting marginalized groups
The dictionary.com definition made it clear that allyship is focused on advocating and working for inclusion of marginalized groups. Companies and organizations that have a DEI policy, strategy, or mandate will typically focus their attention on the designated groups within the Employment Equity Act: women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, and members of visible minorities. (Singh points out that the Act’s terminology is outdated. Instead of the Act’s current wording, she says DEI is typically spoken of as focusing on women, racialized (including Indigenous), LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities.) Some companies will also have additional focuses such as older workers, new grads, parents/caregivers, veterans and more.
Terminology is always evolving and changes sometimes reflect newer ways of thinking. For example, some argue that there’s a negative connotation to the term “equity seeking group” as it implies that marginalized groups must seek out equity, when in reality it’s everyone’s job to foster equity, says Singh. Given this, the preferred term to those involved in DEI policies is “equity deserving groups”.
Ways of supporting equity deserving groups also varies. One of the most common ways of doing so is through formal groups – often referred to as employee resource groups (ERGs) or diversity networks. These groups are communities of workers with shared identities and interests. ERGs foster inclusion by helping employees feel they belong and are part of a community within the corporation. ERGs also boost the visibility of underrepresented groups with the company.
Corporate support and sponsorship are what differentiates an ERG from just a social group, says Singh. “At Definity each ERG starts off with an executive sponsor. As it matures, executive reciprocal mentorship relationships are implemented, which is where the exec learns from the ERG and the ERG learns from the exec. And support – budget – is necessary so that the ERG can develop meaningful initiatives, bring in speakers, provide recognition for engagement, and so on,” she says.
ERGs can also be useful in creating connections while recruiting. “I encourage corporate representatives to bring diverse alumni/representatives to campus – one option is to engage the corporation’s ERGs,” says Nancy Sammon, Business Relationship Manager, Career Advancement Centre (CAC), Smith School of Business. “Our students want to hear from others that have ‘gone before them’ and can share their ‘career story’,” she says.
Smith has a number of diverse students clubs that are student run and provide members an opportunity to participate in conferences, networking events, etc. “The majority of our diverse students clubs welcome allies,” says Sammon. Corporations recognize the recruiting potential of supporting student diversity clubs and often partner with them on activities and events. “We work with companies who recruit our students and we have a lot of resources and information for employers about how they can build their brand on campus. One way is by fostering meaningful engagement with diversity student clubs,” says Sammon.
One of the most effective ways for companies to find opportunities to support equity deserving students is through Smith’s annual Diversity Fair. It’s a virtual event where representatives from the diverse Commerce Society clubs have three minutes to describe their focus and work and to ask for the specific support they are seeking for upcoming programs and events. There are also breakout rooms per club where the students and corporate representatives can establish connections. This kind of event, says Sammon, is specifically designed to allow diverse students to have their voices heard and connect directly with corporations. The CAC acts as a conduit to bring the corporates and clubs together to facilitate purposeful connections. Interestingly, at the 2023 Diversity Fair the spokesperson from Women in Leadership-MBA made a specific pitch for allyship because “We think that women in leadership cannot exist in silos – we need all genders to support this.”
Your individual allyship journey
Singh believes that becoming an effective ally is a lifelong process that begins with education about bias and privilege, including recognition of one’s own. Singh says when we’re a part of a dominant group, “It’s really tough to see biased behaviour because our brains are programmed to notice things that are unfair to us, and to gloss over things that are unfair to others. So, we have to do work to learn about what those biases are so that we can do the work to interrupt them and that’s an on-going process,” she says.
Education is key to becoming an ally. The goal is to try to gain an understanding of the barriers marginalized groups are faced with in society, including the workplace. Appreciate that you will never be able to completely understand someone else’s lived experience, but you should try to gain a perspective of it. Be transparent when you don’t know the right language and seek to learn, advises Chaaya. For example, if you don’t know if you’re using language right, ask. It’s about acknowledging you don’t know about language and culture of a particular group.
Understanding the context for certain practices is also important. For example, actions taken to address inequities suffered by a marginalized group can be misperceived as discriminatory against the dominant group. As an example of this Singh cites the “All Lives Matter” slogan that emerged against the Black Lives Matter movement. Similarly, representation targets can be misperceived as quotas that exclude the dominant group. “To combat this kind of zero-sum thinking you need to dig into the history to understand the context around marginalized groups and what barriers they face and then seek to understand how we all benefit if we live in a society – or work in a workplace – that is equitable,” she says.
To truly foster spaces of inclusion and belonging, it is important to recognize, name, and address when persons of marginalized identities are experiencing harm, such as bias or discrimination. To be able to address such situations requires that you become comfortable with speaking up when someone says or does something that is hurtful. There are different ways of doing this and the method chosen will depend on the situation and the comfort level of the person experiencing the harm. Two of the most common ways are “calling out” and “calling in”
Singh describes holding people accountable and educating them in a positive way as the act of “calling in” someone. “We’re all familiar with “calling out” someone’s behaviour. That’s basically publicly criticizing – or publicly shaming – someone for saying or doing something wrong. Well, ‘calling in’ is the act of holding someone accountable using an approach that is about educating versus shaming,” she says. Calling in is done in one-on-one or small group conversations and it is, “An invitation … to bring attention to an individual or group’s harmful words or behaviour, including bias, prejudice, microaggressions, and discrimination”.
Singh admits that calling in someone takes courage and she offers this advice. “When you feel triggered by something someone said or did, start by taking a step back. Ask yourself if it’s worth naming the behaviour in the particular setting you are in at that moment. Sometimes it is best to name it as it is happening because the harm is being done at that moment and it needs to stop,” she says. “Other times approaching someone after the meeting and having a conversation later is the best way to go.” Singh also stresses that it’s important to assume positive intent when calling someone in. “The other person is more likely to hear you if you explicitly state that you want to call them in because you know they didn’t mean to say something hurtful,” she says. And finally, when explaining why you think something said or done is problematic, it’s important that you focus on the behaviour, not the person.
Earlier we discussed the value of ERGs, but what if there are no ERGs at your workplace? If there are no ERGs at your workplace, there are a number of professional and industry groups to explore, she says, such as the Canadian Association of Black Insurance Professionals (CABIP) , the Canadian Association of Insurance Women (CAIW) , LINK (2SLGBTQ+ Insurance Network) . Such groups provide are a great resource for people that self-identify as part of that minority group and for others wishing to have a better understanding of the lived experience of that group.
There are a variety of other ways you can learn about the lived experience of different equity deserving groups, for example, books, podcasts, movies, documentaries, and articles by thought leaders. Singh finds social media resources particularly useful because the information is quite current; she’s found folks like Lily Zheng, a thought leader on social media, interesting. Seward also finds social media helpful and, for example, she follows an Indigenous social media influencer: NotoriousCree. Singh’s trick for finding relevant social media commentary is to follow relevant hash tags related to DEI, for example: #DiversityEquityInclusion, #DisabilityInclusion, #AntiRacism, #IndigenousInclusion, #WomensEmpowerment, #LGBTQ, and so on. As well, there are formal courses – including, for example, a free Coursera course called Indigenous Canada – where you can explore the different histories and contemporary perspectives of Indigenous peoples living in Canada.
Effective ally behaviour
Allyship can be shown in a number of ways. Here are just some examples of ways of being an effective ally:
- State your pronouns when you introduce yourself. This simple action can be a powerful act of allyship with the LGBTQ+ community because it recognizes that gender identity and gender expression are on a spectrum; there is no one way to identify someone based on how they look.
- Be a DEI champion in your organization. Take the time to learn what your organization’s DEI strategy is and seek to amplify those messages and then seek opportunities to champion those messages and embed them in everyday thinking and behaviour.
- Seek to recognize other groups by identity and by lived experience.
- Find out what particular support the marginalized community you are an ally of needs or wants. For example, do they need you to bring up their cause in a senior-level meeting? Do they need you to work to change a policy to include them, etc.
- Learn to recognize your own capabilities and privileges and then find ways to lend your social capital to another.
- Lend your voice to create belonging for another person.
- Act as an upstander – calling in when you see harm – without being asked to do so.
- If someone calls you in, listen to what they are saying with the intention of learning and seeing things from their point of view. Remember you are not a bad person – realize you are evolving and that this is just one step in your growth. Take responsibility for the impact of your words and actions and change your behaviour going forward.
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