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How to be an ally

My recent article was about allyship, defining it and explaining why it’s important. This time, I talk about some of the practical steps you can take.

My recent article was about allyship, defining it and explaining why it’s important. This time, I talk about some of the practical steps you can take.

Allyship: Calling it out

When someone does or says something that could be perceived as stereotyping, biased, prejudiced, discriminatory or simply unkind, here are the responses you might have:

  • Trying to be perfect – saying exactly the right thing and exactly the right words
  • Not wanting to do the wrong thing, embarrass them or make the situation worse
  • Thinking it’s OK to do nothing

However, these can be the biggest barrier to allyship. To be an ally, you need to intervene if you see/hear something inappropriate.

You might be happy to address big things and think the little things can safely be ignored. But the little things build up, and a little bit of you dies inside every time you fail to stand up for yourself or someone else.

“When you walk away from racism, you walk away from the opportunity to change it”.
Caroline Flanaghan

For ways to do this, watch the video about my IDEA model:

The good news is, there isn’t just one way to be an ally. You have a range of choices:

    • Decide what to challenge and what to leave alone – a.k.a. pick your battles. If you take on every battle you will burn out and alienate the very people you want to support and the very people whose behaviour you’d like to see change. And you can’t win all the battles. Some belong to other people 
    • Follow your instinct. If you have a powerful reaction, that’s a sign you should act. If you don’t, you’ll regret it later
    • Pick the right moment: Would it be best to react immediately and publicly? Directly challenge it by saying: “Stop doing that”, or “I feel uncomfortable about that”. Or would it be less contentious to address it afterwards, privately, when the heat has cooled? Your choice is dependent on what will get you the best result
    • Be curious rather than judgemental –Judgement creates polarised debates where “I’m right and you’re wrong” and the person who’s ‘wrong’ will either dig their heels in or feel guilty and withdraw. Try requesting more specific information in a spirit of curiosity, e.g. “That sounds like an inappropriate thing to say, can you express your opinion another way?” Or, if someone says: “Let’s get the girls to do that”, you might respond: “Girls?” 

To share a story about the positive impact little things can have, one of my female clients has always remembered and appreciated her male boss for the support he provided when she was going through fertility treatment. He admitted that he didn’t know the right terminology to use, but he made time for her, was respectful, and gave her the space she needed.

Allyship: Reaching out

Practice awareness and empathy. Become attuned to when someone might appreciate help and know-how to offer it.

    • Honour who they are: listen and learn how they pronounce their name and use their preferred pronouns. Mirror the language they use to describe themselves — it shows you’re paying attention and that you care about them
    • Acknowledge their expertise: proactively share when someone who may feel marginalised has a valuable perspective to offer. Publicly recognise people’s achievements in a way that feels comfortable to them 
    • Keep an eye out for key moments that might be important in someone’s life. Show them you’ve noticed and are there for them
    • Become attuned to your colleagues’ career stages and life stages, acknowledge their significant religious days and holidays
    • Encourage participation from everyone on your team: I often recommend appointing a ‘shared voice ambassador’ in meetings who can invite quieter voices in. Explicitly invite everyone for ideas and feedback on projects and – if someone has not contributed – invite them to do so, either in the moment or afterwards
    • Work harder in remote workplaces: some people may turn off their video because they aren’t engaged, feel uncomfortable showing their background or are exhausted from the ongoing pressure of feeling left out. Check in with them and ask how you can support them 
    • Show you’re listening: Even on a video call or in a meeting when you’re not speaking, your facial expressions and body language can be an important source of feedback for others and either make them feel included or not. Make sure you are fully present when someone is sharing, and think about the message you’re conveying nonverbally
    • Talk to the person who was on the receiving end of disrespectful behaviour and ask how they would like you to support them – if at all

What next?

    • Bring allyship into the everyday
    • Accept and celebrate our differences
    • Become aware of your own biases
    • Proactively take steps
    • If you’re not sure what to do, just ask

See page 61 of my book, Power Up, which looks at situations in your career where being ‘different’ might hold you back, and page 68 for common power blockers where you might be holding yourself back (and what you can do about it). This also links to my recent article Do we still need an International Women’s Day?

For more ideas about how to supercharge your career, define your roadmap and get your voice heard, please see my Power Up book or get in touch to discuss how I could support your organisation.

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Photo credits: Yolande de Vries, Annie Armitage
© Antoinette Dale Henderson
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