Becoming an Ally | Allyship

See also: Friendliness

This page is not about international diplomacy or wars—the original use of the terms ‘alliance’ and ‘ally’. Instead, it is about diversity, inclusion and equality, and more particularly about what each of us can do to foster it.

An ally is someone who is not from a minority or marginalised group, but wants to support these groups, or one particular group. This may sound like a buzzword. However, genuine allyship is increasingly seen as the answer to achieving diversity, inclusion and equality, especially in the workplace.

People can be allies to any marginalised group, or choose one in particular to support. The crucial aspect is that they act to reduce the barriers faced by this group or groups, and actively try to create change. This page describes how you can become an ally.

Defining Allyship and Allies

Defining allyship

“When a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group’s basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society.”

Nicole Asong Nfonoyim-Hara, Director of Diversity Programs at the Mayo Clinic

“Allies must also have some degree of power to effect change.”

Samantha-Rae Dickinson, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director for Goodwill Industries, International, Inc.

There are therefore three aspects to allyship: being in a position of privilege, being in a position of power, and having a desire to drive change.

This may sound it rules most of us out of being allies. However, the level of power and privilege are very much situation-specific.

In a blog, Samantha-Rae Dickinson gives an example of a man who steps in to stop a male colleague from ‘mansplaining’ something. Mansplaining is when a man interrupts a woman (often an expert in a particular field) to express his own (often less-informed) views as if they were more important than hers. There is no indication in the blog that the second man is more senior. He is simply better able to call out the behaviour by virtue of his sex.

If you are white, you are already a member of the single most privileged group in the world—even if you personally feel pretty powerless at times.

Types of Allyship

There are several different types of allyship, some more useful than others. They include:

  • Performative allyship, where someone expresses support for a marginalised group in the hope of gaining something themselves. This is often seen on social media, when someone will express support for a cause to achieve ‘likes’, but in practice take no further action. This form of allyship is actively unhelpful, because it gives the word a bad name.

  • Intersectional allyship means recognising that everyone experiences discrimination in slightly different ways, both within and between particular groups. There is no one size fits all to any of this, and nobody should assume that they understand someone else’s experience.

  • Becoming an upstander, which is the opposite of being a bystander. It means that you will act when you see something wrong or inappropriate, to reduce incidences of discrimination or micro-aggressions.

  • Becoming a confidant means providing a safe space for people to express their fears and needs. Simply listening to people can make them feel safer and more included.

Why Does Allyship Matter?

You may be asking yourself why any of this matters. Why do you have to get involved?

The answer is because breaking down privilege can only be done by those who also have privilege.

Allyship is essential to reach equality and equity. Our page on Diversity in Groups and Teams explains about the Rule of Three: that broadly speaking, you need at least three people from any marginalised group in a group or team situation before they feel confident enough to speak. This is why so-called ‘tokenism’ (involving one person from a group to say that you have a representative) doesn’t work.

If you don’t feel welcome in the room, you won’t feel able to contribute fully, or even partly—and that means that you won’t contribute.

“Allyship: the key to unlocking the power of diversity”

- Sheree Atkinson in Forbes, 2018.

“When marginalized groups feel supported and included, they are more comfortable bringing their whole selves to work and tend to be more engaged and productive, thus creating a more enjoyable environment for everyone.”

- Samantha-Rae Dickinson

All the evidence shows that more diverse groups consistently outperform homogeneous groups, and make better decisions. What’s more, people are far more likely to stay in organisations that have a strong culture of inclusion and allyship. They are more likely to perform better, and less likely to go off sick. They are also much more likely to recommend their workplace as a good place to work.

Tapping into the power of diversity is crucial for businesses, organisations and society more generally. We literally cannot afford not to do this.

Barriers to Allyship

What stops people from becoming allies? Overwhelmingly, the answer is fear. People are afraid of several things.

First, they are afraid of what change will bring.

If other people have more power, this may mean that they have less, or that their situation is more uncomfortable in some way.

Second, they are frightened of ‘putting their heads above the parapet’.

What if they get their heads metaphorically shot off by more senior people? What if they become known as a trouble-maker, and their career suffers?

Third, they are frightened of ‘getting it wrong’.

‘Cancel culture’ has made people genuinely afraid of stepping into delicate situations involving marginalised groups in case they say or do the wrong thing. Doing nothing may be worse for others, but at least it doesn’t involve any risk to themselves.

Improving Your Allyship

What can you do to become a better ally? There are several important steps:

  • Learn about the barriers and issues facing the marginalised group that you wish to become an ally for. Read about the perspectives of members of that group, and use empathy to understand their position. One of the most important characteristics of an ally is curiosity. Ask questions of other people to find out how they experience the world, and also find out about the historical and social context that has led to discrimination.

  • Understand yourself and your own biases. You cannot address your biases unless you are aware of them. Take time to explore your unconscious biases, and make them more conscious. Look at how they might affect others—and then how you might need to change.

  • Be open to and accept feedback. If you are given feedback about how your biases or your behaviour have affected someone, be open to that feedback. Don’t be defensive. Apologise and ask what you could or should do differently. Show a little humility about yourself, and aim to learn and improve.

  • Listen to members of the marginalised group to help you understand what would help them. Being an ally is about providing support—and it’s not for you to say what support is most needed. If you are privileged, you genuinely don’t know what someone without that privilege may be experiencing. Open your mind, listen to what is being said and what is not being said, and ask questions to clarify your understanding.

  • Advocate for members of the group. Learning and listening are essential first steps, but you also need to put your support into action. The precise nature of your advocacy will depend on your position, but it might include sharing opportunities, calling out inappropriate behaviour by others, acting as a mentor to someone from a marginalised group, or broadening attendance at decision-making meetings to more and different groups of people.

  • Engage empathetically. It is easy to say ‘become an advocate’, but you need to do so in a way that will be helpful. For example, when you want to call out behaviour, do so empathically. Instead of saying ‘that was a bit biased’, ask the perpetrator questions about the reasons for their actions. Hopefully this will help them to reflect on their behaviour, and understand why it was inappropriate, without them feeling that you are judging them.

  • Create opportunities for others to engage. Take responsibility within your own sphere of influence. For example, look at who gets to speak in meetings, and make opportunities for others to do so too. This doesn’t mean picking on them in meetings and forcing them to speak. Instead, you could ask them for their views in advance, and discuss whether and how they would like to present them to others.

A Question of Understanding and Empathy

Ultimately, improving inclusion is about increasing understanding and respect.
A little empathy, humility and tolerance, coupled with a willingness to speak up, will go a long way to making you a much better ally.