Allyship is defined as the state or condition of being an active supporter for marginalized individuals or groups of people. Although being an ally is a noble cause, many people aren’t sure how to get started or how to make an impact. In a recent Acxiom Women LEAD event we discussed with Acxiom associates some simple, everyday actions everyone can take to rise up and become an ally for women – and other marginalized groups – on the journey of making Acxiom a more inclusive and engaging workplace for all.
Six Ways to Turn Allyship Into Action
1. Acknowledge that Privilege and Bias Exist
This may sound less like an “action” and more like a “thought,” but it’s an important step to being an ally. Before we can take action as an ally for someone else, we first have to recognize and acknowledge the fundamental root cause: that privilege and bias exist. While we all may be equal at the human level, our circumstances are not. We do not get to choose the circumstances into which we are born that naturally deposit us into systems of opportunity, privilege or oppression, like gender, race or country of origin.
I love this quote that helps explain privilege. Having privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard; only that your unchosen circumstance (whether it be race, gender, etc.) isn’t one of the factors that has made your life harder just by being that thing.
We are also all human – individuals with our own thoughts, feelings and views of the world. Our upbringings and life experiences – along with cultural and societal norms – tend to shape our individual human condition and our personal views of the world.
Any and all of these factors can certainly lead to privilege and bias in our thinking and actions, which can further perpetuate these systems and patterns of injustice.
As an ally, you can seek to understand the privileges you possess that make oppression or disadvantage a non-issue for you, and how that privilege or any bias, norms, policies or other systems might perpetuate it for others. For example, men must recognize they are members of a long-privileged group, and as such they are capable of perpetuating systems of oppression from which privilege is derived – simply by being “male.”
It might be natural or easy as a member of a privileged group to think “privilege or oppression cannot exist because I’ve never experienced it” or “maybe it does, but surely it cannot be that bad or widespread” – especially when first confronted with the issue. By nature of our privileged status, we wouldn’t have had the unfortunate opportunity to experience it or realize the significance of it. That’s what privilege is.
It’s important as allies that we understand members of the privileged group do not get to decide whether the oppression is real or to what extent it is significant; only members of the marginalized group do. Being an ally is not about YOU, it’s about them. Now, that might sound controversial, but it’s important to note this doesn’t mean the privileged must feel guilty; nor does it give free license for the marginalized or oppressed to act badly or have unreasonable demands. Just that space and latitude should be given for people to be heard on the issue without qualification or certification by those who have never had to face it. You should try to understand their experience so you can champion justice and equality for them.
Allies are uniquely positioned to take action to equalize privilege and diminish bias, not out of guilt but rather from an attitude of responsibility and doing what is right. As an ally, ask yourself when you realize you are privileged, “What can I do differently – as a man or member of another privileged group – to stop the oppression or make use of my privilege to minimize it?”
2. Educate Yourself
Almost all experts agree that another important step in being an ally is to educate yourself. Just like before doctors begin to treat a patient, they have to know a little bit more about the person and their medical history. The same goes for allyship.
How can you educate yourself?
- There is a plethora of books and articles, podcasts, YouTube videos, shows and movies on the topic of allyship. At the end of this post, there are some links to some great resources to get you started.
- Potential allies should educate themselves on a community’s history, culture, biases and issues. If your company offers bias training, like Acxiom’s Everyday Bias training, you should look for those courses. In Acxiom’s Everyday Bias class, associates can learn to understand bias, the impact of bias, how to recognize biases, and how to overcome them.
- It is also suggested that you take time to listen and gain understanding. Discuss allyship with others who may have a different perspective from yours. It’s OK to ask questions, but do your own research first and don’t expect someone from a marginalized group to teach you everything.
- It’s an ongoing process of educating ourselves on ideas, habits or positions on issues that have likely been with us since childhood. Being an ally doesn’t necessarily mean you fully understand what it feels like to be oppressed. It means you’re taking on the struggle as your own, so it makes sense that you do some research to learn more about the history of the struggle in which you are participating. It’s important that potential allies come across as friends, neighbors, or coworkers who care and want to learn.
3. Don’t Stop at Social Media Posts
We live in a connected world, which makes it all too easy to be heard. And what do we do when we want to share something or have something to say? We take to the internet, of course! We post, tweet, snap, pin, blog, slack, chirp, yammer, kik or any other number of a growing set of oddly named activities that are now becoming common in our daily online lives and personas. It’s become a way of life for most of us.
As allies, it’s so easy to think that by sharing our thoughts in cyberspace we have done our part. Social media and the internet are important tools for creating awareness, engaging in (hopefully respectful) discussions to share, grow and learn – and maybe even coming to the defense of friends or others from bullies who hide behind keyboards and screens. But allyship is so much more.
Allyship requires – and demands – us to RISE UP and take action. Just as those of privilege can unknowingly perpetuate systems of oppression and injustice, they can also RISE UP and be powerful advocates, influencers and change agents as allies – especially within their own privileged group. And as the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.” Others will pay WAY more attention to your actions from within your own group than just words on a newsfeed.
And as a true ally, these actions are not “one-and-done.” They do not and should not stop today or even next week, and they do not stop just because you post on social media and check it off the list. Being an ally is making a commitment to lifelong work.
But what else can you do? Acting as an ally can be through actions – big or small. You do not have to be an elected official or the founder of a social change organization. “Diversity” doesn’t have to be in the title on your business card. Being an ally can start with your everyday actions in your corner of the world. It can start with your own family – how you treat and support your spouse or by talking to your kids about gender inequality and stereotypes or racism. It can be in the workplace – with examining hiring practices or your team’s working dynamics. It can be by volunteering with or donating to a cause that endeavors to lift up marginalized groups. There are so many small ways beyond a simple tweet to be an ally; that can end up having a BIG impact.
4. Address Issues in the Moment
We’ve all been there, that moment when a person says or does something that clearly belittles or demeans someone else. And so often we freeze in the awkwardness or just let the moment pass without saying something – and likely regret it later. Speaking up to address an injustice or micro-aggression when you witness it is never easy, but it is necessary as an ally. And it’s just the right thing to do. It will also help you avoid walking away with that “shoulda, coulda, woulda” feeling.
But you first need to have a sense of what matters to you or qualifies as speak-up-worthy before that moment comes. That is partly where the research you’ve done comes into play and deciding what you will not stand for – like stereotyping or gender bias. Understanding your company values and when someone isn’t living by them is also helpful. If someone says or does something that just doesn’t sit right with you, that likely is a sign to speak up.
It’s important to remember not to go around looking for confrontation but rather recognizing when these slights or actions against marginalized groups happen and having the courage to interject and stand up against someone else’s indiscretions. And while everyone will make mistakes, do your best to try to do it in a way that minimizes awkwardness – for both the offender and the offended. Even if somewhat unpleasant, it’s a worthy cause and others need our allyship. Questions or responses that can help include:
- “What makes you say/think that?” – This question gets the offender talking and allows them to perhaps clear up a misstep or gives you an opportunity to educate and correct them.
- “You know, that comment made me feel uncomfortable” – This comment let’s them know their actions were offensive and lets the offended know they were not alone.
5. Lead by Example
To be an ally, your words and actions must be in sync. Leading by example is a perfect way to demonstrate this. And there are many ways to do that, especially in a workplace setting:
- Give appropriate, constructive feedback of equal length, especially when conducting performance reviews or peer evaluations.
- Research by the Stanford Institute on Gender Research reveals that women often get less feedback tied to business outcomes and get shorter reviews than men. Other research by Lean In and McKinsey shows the reason could be that men are concerned that if they share constructive feedback, women will be hurt and think they are prejudiced against them. To avoid this perception, the feedback is often softened.
- It’s important to provide direct and specific feedback of equal length for everyone related to skills, results and contributions instead of relying on vague language or likability by other peers.
- Share growth opportunities with others – especially those individuals who might usually be overlooked or even if the opportunity may not be perceived as a traditional fit. For example, suggesting an IT camp or STEM opportunity to your daughter or technical training to female associates.
- Cultivate a culture of credit
- Make a point to celebrate and give credit to your team members. When someone proposes a good idea, repeat it to others and give the person credit.
- Use micro-affirmations – subtle acknowledgements of a person’s value or accomplishments – with associates to make clear that you appreciate and value their work. Examples could be publicly attributing credit to someone’s work, making a kind introduction a to senior leader for an associate, listening to an associate in distress or faced with a challenge, saying hello to an associate in the elevator or hallway.
- Other ways could be representing your company at a job fair or sponsoring an internship for minority students
All of these actions show you are an ally just by setting a good example.
6. Lift Others Up by Advocating
To be a good ally, it is important to remember to refrain from viewing others as damsels in distress who need knights, protectors, or saviors. Instead, one way to be an ally is to advocate for others by focusing on changing policies or procedures that makes things better, which often makes things better for everyone. A perfect example of this is curb cuts. Injured veteran turned lawyer Jack Fisher petitioned the city of Kalamazoo, MI, in 1945 to replace perpendicular sidewalks curbs with concrete ramps, making the city’s downtown a bit more accessible for other able-bodied people in wheelchairs. A sympathetic city commissioner with a wheelchair-bound child empathized with Mr. Fisher, and the city approved the ordinance.
Soon others like tourists rolling suitcases, parents pushing children in strollers and delivery people driving hand trucks discovered their benefits, too. Now a requirement for ADA compliance across the country, curb cuts were made possible by having an ally in a position to advocate for change – lifting up a marginalized group and making life easier for everyone else in the meantime.
In a work setting, other ways to lift others up by advocating are by:
- Noticing interruptions during meetings or calls and redirecting conversations back to the person originally speaking
- Watch out for certain phrases or actions, like:
- “Can you take notes?” – a common request to women on a team
- “She wouldn’t want this job because of the travel requirements and/or kids.” – an assumption that is often incorrect
- “The candidate is not a culture fit.” – the candidate could be a culture add
An ally will watch out for these types of phrases, acknowledge patterns of behavior that assign busy work by stereotyped gender roles and push back or take action when they occur.
How To Look For An Ally When You Need One
While we can all be allies to someone else, it’s also important to know how to find an ally when you need one. It’s helpful to specify your needs and know which type of allies there are and the best type to help you.
Next, look around you. Those closest in your environment may be in a position to help (or already doing so). A colleague or teammate may be able to help you grow or provide the support you need. Don’t be afraid to ask.
You can also gain allies by becoming one yourself. The more people you help and support, the better chance you have of leaning on them when you need support. Others will usually remember your kindness and be willing to return the favor.
While we may all come from different backgrounds and circumstances, it doesn’t take much to rise up and become allies for women and other marginalized groups and continue this journey together of being a more inclusive and engaging workplace for all. We hope this post helped you learn at least one action you can take to be an ally for someone on your team, across our company or elsewhere in your life – because even just ONE act can make a BIG impact.