What it takes to be an ally to marginalized communities at work

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What it takes to be an ally to marginalized communities at work

Employees believe they are allies in the workplace, but research reveals a gap between intention and action. Here are four actions to close that gap.

Zachary Nunn

February 28, 2022 | 9 min read

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Allyship. We heard the word used so often over the past two years as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), that it’s no surprise Dictionary.com named it its 2021 word of the year. The site defines allyship as:

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.

LeanIn.Org, whose mission it is to help build more inclusive organizations, further defines allyship as “an active and consistent effort to use your privilege and power to support and advocate for people with less privilege and power.”

Many aspire or consider themselves to be allies. But some may rate their impact more positively than others might agree. This potential gap between intention and action shows up, for example, in the data collected from more than 65,000 employees who participated in the 2021 Women in the Workplace study, a survey conducted annually by Lean In and McKinsey. While almost 80% of white employees said they saw themselves as allies to women of color, only 30% of white employees say they speak up to support racial equity, and only 10% sponsor or mentor a woman of color. 

How can we close this gap? At the Equity at Work event presented recently by Lean In in partnership with Momentive, a group of industry leaders thoughtfully explored the idea, intention—and practice—of allyship. In a panel session led by Rachel Thomas, co-founder of Lean In, participants discussed ways in which individuals and corporations can become better allies, driving change in the workplace to create greater equity for all.

The allyship panel included chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officers, Oris Stuart from the National Basketball Association (NBA); Tiffany R. Warren from Sony Music Group; and our own DEI leader Antoine Andrews; as well as Dr. L. Taylor Phillips, an expert in the DEI space and a professor at the Stern school of business at New York University. 

4 actions individuals can take to close the allyship intention-action gap

Early in the session, Rachel Thomas asked the panel about the gap between allyship intention and action—why it exists and how we might close it. The participants offered their perspectives, calling out some of the actions individuals—and organizations—can take to close it. 

In this blog, we’ll explore some of those individual actions and in a subsequent blog, we’ll cover in greater depth the role of the organization in building workplace equity.

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1: Start with a beginner's mind

As Oris Stuart of the NBA put it, there can be a lack of familiarity, comfort, and trust between people, across differences. And in that absence of familiarity, there might be fear: fear of saying the wrong thing; fear of not connecting; fear of saying something that’s misinterpreted or that gets oneself into trouble. 

Stuart believes the reason for the gap between intent and action is largely due to lack of experience in working in different environments and talking to different people who expect different things and communicate in different ways. “I believe the first step to being an ally is just to get to know someone; just to understand what’s important to them,” said Stuart. “Get to know what is important to them, so you can engage them in a manner that they want to be engaged.”

Dr. L. Taylor Phillips agreed and suggested that people adopt a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset” in their approach to nurturing equity. People with a growth mindset believe they can develop skills through hard work, good strategies, and input from others, while those with a more fixed mindset tend to believe certain talents and abilities are innate. “If we have more of a growth mindset,” said Phillips, “[then] this is a relationship; it’s a learning opportunity. You’re going to mess up, move on, apologize, and do better.” 

2: Consider the power you have to effect change and set goals

As Phillips pointed out, allyship is a big concept with so many things one can do—and this sometimes causes people to hesitate or stop. She suggested that we can make progress by making concrete goals for practicing equity. “Is there a particular person you’re close with, who you would like to build a relationship with? Is there something more structured? Something you can work on in your own self?” 

Everyone has the power in the workplace to effect change—not just leaders or managers. Even a small gesture could lead to positive change. For example, Momentive Chief Diversity and Social Impact Officer Antoine Andrews offered a recent experience of being on one of many Zoom calls, where often people end up talking over one another. “I had hired someone recently, and we were on a call trying to manage through a tough situation. He and a young woman started to speak at the same time, but he yielded saying, ‘Hey, please; the floor’s all yours.’” 

Andrews said that while that small act was just one man making sure someone else had a voice, other meeting attendees went out of their way to later tell Andrews that they found that action both amazing and inspiring. And the behavior was contagious, according to Andrews. As the meeting progressed, if people spoke over one another, more often than not they would stop and say “Hey, I’m sorry, I yield the floor.” That’s an example of power that an individual has (the power to let another person be heard) that leads to positive change (meeting attendees are now cognizant of letting others have a voice). 

Similarly, Mellody Hobson, co-CEO & president of Ariel Investments, who spoke at the CEO fireside chat session of the Equity at Work event, recalled a time when she first joined Ariel Investments as a young executive. John Rogers, Ariel Investments’s chairman and co-CEO, told her that she’d be meeting with "lots of people with very senior titles and a lot of money." But that didn’t mean they had better ideas. Hobson added: “John said, ‘I want your ideas.’” That’s the definition of leveraging one’s power to include others. Hobson said: “If we could look at everyone in the world that way and see the potential in them, I think it would be fundamentally different.” Hobson said she lives by Rogers’s advice, which is to never leave a room without having changed it.

3: Become aware of microaggressions

Microaggression occurs when one person or group of people threatens or denigrates another person or group of people’s identity, either consciously or unconsciously, often without other people realizing it’s happening. What may feel like no big deal to one person or group may be very painful to the receiver. An example might be the microaggressions women leaders encounter, compared to men. According to the Lean In Women in Workplace report, women are more than twice as likely as men to report being interrupted or spoken over; one and a half times more likely to have their judgment in their area of expertise questioned; and almost twice as likely to have others comment on their emotional state. It’s easy to see how women can experience these incidents as microaggressions due to gender bias.

Oris Stuart of the NBA offered another example, pointing out that while many people might not notice it, framings such as “qualified minority candidate” or “qualified diverse candidate” are microaggressions, assuming as they do that the “qualified” qualifier is necessary when specifying a minority or diverse candidate. He observed that for many, microaggressions like this happen all day, every day and, for the recipient, can wear away at the psyche, like acid rain dripping. “We’ve got to understand how impactful these are, these microaggressions,” said Stuart.

The immediate goal is not to catalog and call out every microaggression, but to start from a place of listening and learn how to recognize them. Tiffany R. Warren of Sony Music Group observes that sometimes when she talks about microaggressions, eyes glaze over—most likely because the listener hasn’t experienced the microaggression first-hand. She suggested that learning to be an ally can begin with learning to read the room and trying to understand how everyone is receiving the information being shared. 

Stuart suggested that this is a key area where people who do DEI work can help others learn how to translate observations into action. It can be a learning moment, he explained, to go back and share with another how what they said or did, or how they behaved in a situation had an impact—and ask them to think about it so they can recognize it in the future. 

4: Find a bigger purpose

Building equity is a long game and requires a different set of skills—and motivations. Learning those new skills and finding the right motivation to sustain one’s effort over time takes work. 

Our DEI leader offered a perspective in three words: Perfection. Comfort. Stamina. Andrews said he tells people that when it comes to anything related to DEI, if you’re striving for perfection, you’re headed down the wrong path. Looking for comfort in the face of the challenges—that won’t work either. And you must have stamina to do this work.

Phillips agreed, suggesting that what gives us the stamina for the work is an underlying commitment to a vision of justice. Commitment to that greater goal helps people persevere and do more, she said; it shapes the goals we set and the actions we take as individuals, while having this vision of justice, of equity, motivates us to pursue together something much bigger than our individual objectives. 

In part two of this blog series, we’ll explore how the panel translated a vision of justice into corporate action in the workplace. In the meantime, you can access on-demand the full replay of this panel session from the Equity at Work event, and all the other sessions, including a fireside chat about DEI with CEOs from Lean In, Ariel Investments, and Momentive.

Zachary Nunn is Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Impact at Momentive

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