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What is allyship?

Did you know Dictionary.com named ‘allyship’ word of the year in 2021? It became popular after the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

At the time, I was chairing the BelEve charity. I desperately wanted to do something, but just didn’t know what would be appropriate. I spoke to Marsha Powell, the co-founder, for advice. Between us, we created a statement to give information about how we would support young people in the light of the news.

An ally is any person who actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole.

Everyone has the ability to be an ally – men can be allies to women, white people can be allies to people of colour, cis people can be allies to members of the LGBTQI+ community, and so on. And taking gender allyship as an example, allyship isn’t just for International Women’s Day, it’s for every day of the year.

Why allyship is important

If you’re looking to bring about a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture, a good place to start is by quoting the data. And the research clearly illustrates that organisations that prioritise D, E & I are more successful than those that don’t. 

  • In 2020, researchers studied more than 1,000 large companies in 15 countries and found the most culturally and ethnically diverse businesses outperformed the rest by as much as 36%. Source: McKinsey

     

  • 40% of people say that they feel isolated at work, and the result has been lower organisational commitment and engagement. By contrast, when workers feel as though they belong, there’s a significant increase in job performance, a drop in turnover risk, and a reduction in sick days. Source: Harvard Business Review

Bias blocks equal opportunities for all. If you’re only recruiting and promoting people who are similar to you, you’re creating a very one-dimensional organisation.

 

Have you ever felt like the odd one out?

A few years ago, I was invited to deliver an Inclusive Development Conversations programme to one of my clients to show managers how to treat all their team members fairly. I started the session with an extremely powerful exercise that you could run in your organisation. Take a blank piece of A4 paper and tear off a strip if someone has ever commented unfavourably or made assumptions about you because of your:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Ability/disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religious or political beliefs
  • Family/parental status
  • Accent
  • Health
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Hair colour

An aside: You might notice the first few items on the list are ‘protected characteristics’ in law, so you could make a claim for discrimination or harassment if someone treats you badly for those reasons. It may not be illegal, but it can make you feel equally uncomfortable or isolated if you are disrespected because of the other factors, which are also things you can’t easily change.

At the end of the exercise, I asked people to hold up what paper was remaining. And look around at their colleagues to compare. It became clear that everyone had experienced some form of discrimination when they thought about it, but some people had experienced it waaay more than others.  

And this was surprising to many. Because what a lot of people had done was what psychologists call disassociation. Where something painful happens and you bury it, because it’s too uncomfortable, embarrassing or downright painful to carry around. You know that feeling when someone does something or says something – either to you or too close to you – that doesn’t feel right. But you don’t know how to react, you don’t want to make a fuss or draw attention to yourself, you’re worried about the impact on you, and so you stay quiet, bury that feeling away, deny it ever happened.

It shows we have all shared that feeling of ‘otherness’ at some point.

Here are some examples:

  • I will never forget the feeling of being invisible when I had to use a wheelchair after a recent foot operation. Despite all my attempts to engage people in conversation, they looked straight over my head and talked to the person pushing me.

 

 

  • At a networking event where I was the only woman, one man talked about their ‘right-hand man’ DIY business and another piped up: “No prizes for guessing what you do with your left hand”. It generated much laughter in the room, but I felt sick, uncomfortable and small (and left as soon as politeness allowed). I was upset with myself as I didn’t call it out. I even left my coat behind!
  • My friend, Caroline Flanagan, is an ex-lawyer, coach and author of Be the First, in which she shares regular occurrences when hers is the only black face in a sea of white and reflects back to her school days, when a teacher referred to her as ‘African Queen’. I hear from other friends how frustrating it is to be asked: “Where are you from, really?” and endless irrelevant comments about their hair.

The fact is, we’ve all experienced bias and been stereotyped or judged in some way.

This feeling is more familiar for some than for others and relates to whether you are part of what sociologists call the ‘dominant’ or ‘non-dominant’ group. People from underrepresented groups often find their expertise and skills are questioned and held to higher standards than others. A person who is feeling left out, tokenised or like an impostor may sideline themselves by not speaking up, not contributing, and not showing up.

To build on the idea of ‘togetherness’ rather than ‘otherness’, I recommend this powerful 3-minute video promoting Denmark’s TV2 in 2017: All that we share.

My next article is about how you can be an ally. Meanwhile, please email me if you’d like a PDF copy of my Imposter Syndrome booklet.

Ready to find out more?

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