What is Allyship?

Allyship is a relatively new word and has quickly become associated with the DE&I journey. Allyship is the process of taking actions that result in creating an opportunity, and optimally a culture, in which a marginalized individual or group feels valued, supported, and heard.

Allyship is an active practice. It is living the values of diversity, inclusion, and equity through your actions. Being an ally is not a label — it is a verb.

Allyship begins with an understanding and self-awareness of yourself and the power you hold, along with an awareness that power is not equally distributed among different social groups. It would be inaccurate to characterize every member of any group as empowered or without power. In general though, at this time in the evolution of our society, most would agree that nonwhite members of society along with those with disabilities, those in the LGBTQ community, and to a lesser degree women, are generally less empowered.

Allyship is about understanding the needs of marginalized people and aligning your actions to meet those needs working towards equity, fairness, and justice for all. We need allyship because we need people with more power to take on more risks to disrupt the status quo so that those without privileges are not the only ones advocating for diversity.

All of us are impacted by the distribution of power in one way or another. Some people are members of historically oppressed classes and others are not. Allyship is a way that those who are not can actively work toward enabling those that are.

How Can You Practice Allyship?

Listen to the people around you with lesser levels of power. You may not recognize or understand why they feel the way they do. Respect their lived experience.

Educate yourself on the histories and experiences of disempowered groups. Learn about how laws, policies and practices may adversely affect or be used for the benefit of different groups of people.

Provide solidarity.

Offer the support you are asked for, rather than the forms of support you imagine would be helpful. Again, respect lived experience.

Every person is unique to their experiences. If one person shares their experiences with you or asks for your support in a particular way, don’t assume they are speaking for more than their own personal experience. There may be some commonality to a need, but don’t assume it.

Help boost the visibility of the work of those you seek to support. Give them the opportunity to speak rather than trying to speak for them.

Allyship is a process, the success of which will be determined by those you seek to support. You may get it wrong the first time or sometimes, but the journey is important and can make a significant difference in the lives of those you seek to support.

The Allyship Journey – How Specifically Can You Engage?

Allyship may look like mentoring for those who have been a mentor, but allyship is deeper and more significant than mentorship. Unlike some mentoring relationships, allyship is always initiated by the individual with a level of power. Those with a level of power need to educate themselves on what that means and how they can effectively use that power to help others. Allyship is actively looking for ways to help or empower others and reaching out to make it happen. Not everyone knows how to do that or is comfortable doing it. Outlined below are several ways one can reach out in allyship.

Sponsor – support the work of colleagues from underrepresented groups in all contexts, but specifically in situations that will help boost those colleagues’ standing and reputations.

  • Talk about the expertise you see in others, especially during performance reviews and promotion discussions.
  • Recommend people for assignments and learning opportunities they are interested in.
  • With their permission, share colleagues’ career goals with influencers.

Champion – look for opportunities to champion colleagues from underrepresented groups in meetings and in industry-wide events and conferences. This sends a valuable message of support, recognition, and acceptance to large audiences.

  • Advocate for more women, people of color, and members of other underrepresented groups as keynote speakers and panelists.

Amplifier – ensure that marginalized voices are both heard and respected.

  • When someone proposes a good idea, endorse it, and make sure they get the credit. For example: “I agree with Helen’s recommendation for improving our marketing strategy.”
  • Create a respectful code of conduct for meetings and any shared communication medium including email, chat, Slack, and so forth.
  • Invite members of underrepresented groups within your company to speak at staff meetings, write for company-wide newsletters, or take on other highly visible roles.

Advocate – bring peers from underrepresented groups into highly exclusive circles, including qualified colleagues of all genders, races and ethnicities, abilities, ages, sizes, religions, and sexual orientations.

  • Look closely at the invite list for events, strategic planning meetings, dinners with key partners, and other career-building opportunities. If you see someone from a marginalized group missing, advocate for them to be invited.
  • Offer to introduce colleagues from underrepresented groups to influential people in your network.
  • Ask someone from an underrepresented group to be a co-author or collaborator on a proposal or conference submission to enhance their visibility and credibility.

Scholar – learn as much as possible about the challenges and prejudices faced by colleagues from marginalized groups. Scholars listen and learn doing their own research to seek out the relevant information.

  • Investigate and read publications, podcasts, or social media by and about underrepresented groups within your industry.
  • Ask co-workers from marginalized groups about their experience working at your company.
  • If your company or industry has specific discussion groups or Slack channels for members of underrepresented groups, ask if they would be comfortable letting you sit in to observe. Keep in mind your presence may cause members to censor themselves. At the same time this is a two-way communication process and those seeking an ally need to accept their role in educating the community on the ways to be of support.

Upstander – be the opposite of a bystander. Upstanders see wrongdoing and act to combat it. This person pushes back on offensive comments or jokes, even if no one within earshot might be offended or hurt.

  • Always speak up if you witness behavior or speech that is degrading or offensive. Explain your stance so everyone is clear about why you are raising the issue.
  • In meetings, shut down off-topic questions when they are asked only to test the presenter.
  • Act if you see anyone in your company being bullied or harassed. Simply insert yourself into a conversation with a comment such as, “Hi! What are you folks discussing?” and then check in with the victim privately. Ask if they are okay and if they want you to say something.

Confidant – create a safe space for members of underrepresented groups to express their fears, frustrations, and needs. Simply listening to their stories and trusting that they are being truthful creates a protective layer of support.

  • Believe others’ experiences. Do not assume something could not happen just because you have not personally experienced it.
  • Listen and ask questions when someone describes an experience you have not had. Do not jump in with your own personal stories.
  • If you are a manager, hold regular meetings encouraging all of your team members to speak with you about issues that are troubling them.

The best allies are willing to make mistakes and keep trying. There is no roadmap for this process, and everyone is unique in how they can best be engaged.

Remember, allyship is a verb and also a two-way street. It is easier for those willing to practice allyship to step up and do it, but successfully doing it requires dialogue and openness across the relationship. Achieving success in allyship could be career or life changing for both parties.