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I learned something very valuable recently. Just because I am a gay man, it doesn’t mean I am an effective ally. It seemed almost jarring to realise. Surely, because I’m a member of a marginalised group, it must automatically make me more aware and sympathetic to the plight of others in the workplace? But that’s not how being an ally works. While, yes on one hand, I have some personal experience of discrimination and can identify it to varying degrees, my lens is still quite myopic.
Being an ally isn’t something you say and it magics into truth. It’s not granted or bestowed, it is earned. And this is where it rings true for everyone. We are all in possession of privilege, but the amount varies. As a result, there is a collective responsibility to use our positions to level the playing field when we can. No-one is exempt from being an ally.
It was from listening to Salma El-Wardany speak at the recent SocialTalent Live event on DEI that this realisation came to the fore. She referred to allyship as ‘a verb or doing word,’ underscoring the importance of making it a habit. And I think this where learning how to be an ally has to start.
The importance of being an ally
In the last 19 years, it has been reported that 989,298 charges were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involving all manner of workplace discrimination. It is also believed that 75% of incidents go unreported. Discrimination is a prevalent scourge in an industry that is only just starting to scratch the surface of the issue. Recent movements, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have forced people to realise that they must personally take a stand and make organisations fairer and inclusive. But to achieve this, a buy-in is needed across the board. As HBR states: we need to ‘stop delegating DEI efforts to human resources.’
1.) Start with #1
It might get a bit uncomfortable for some, but you have to look at yourself first and address your own fragilities. Where have you fallen? What have you let slide? You need to start taking responsibility for the actions and events that are perpetuated on a day-to-day basis. It’s also important to recognise the advantages, opportunities and resources that certain privileges have allowed many of us to take advantage of. With an understanding of this, you are primed for change.
2.) Use your voice
Salma referred to this as being the person in the room with the problem. Vigilantly observe for discrimination and call it out. It should not be the burden of the marginalised to always fight. Being an ally means being an accomplice. It’s important to verbalise in the moment and explain – small actions like this can have big impacts.
3.) Amplify others
As important as it is to use your own voice, it’s equally vital to augment those who find it harder to be heard. After all, privilege can absolutely be employed as a resource for good. By learning how to distribute your space and power, you can be an effective ally to those who have less. Look around rooms and meetings, take note of who isn’t there and raise this issue. Defer to colleagues when you can and continually include in order to increase visibility. The workplace can be a breeding ground for microaggressions towards underrepresented groups.
4.) Educate yourself
It’s not a marginalised person’s job to educate you as an ally. Take it upon yourself to read publications, watch documentaries and listen to podcasts. Go out in search of this information for yourself. Even if you are part of a particular minority yourself, it is so worthwhile to understand how others are treated. It goes towards building empathy and awareness.
Allyship is for everyone. And while we all do have a certain level of privilege, it’s important to understand how we can best use this to elevate those who have less. The fight to end injustice and promote equity in the workplace hinges on us all being better. It may be a harsher wake-up call for some more than others, but it has to happen. And it has to happen now.