What is allyship? A quick guide

Rosie Clarke, Head of Inclusion & Diversity Services (North), explores what allyship is, why it is important, and how you can become an ally.

Allyship is complex and is very focused on constant learning. In this article,  I’ll tell you what I do, what I think makes a difference, and if you have anything to add please share your thoughts on LinkedIn, Twitter or email us.

What is an ally?

It’s not just a buzzword (although sometimes it can feel like it). An ally is often defined as someone who is not a member of a marginalised group but wants to support and take action to help others in that group. Allyship in the workplace is crucial for inclusion and equality.  

The most widely used definition comes from Nicole Asong Nfonoyim-Hara, the Director of the Diversity Programs at Mayo Clinic, she says “when a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group’s basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society.”

However, Samantha-Rae Dickenson adds that to be an ally privilege alone isn’t enough, you must also have some degree of power.

You could be an ally to different racial and ethnic groups, religions, LGBTQ+ identities, disabled people, anyone for who society has created barriers. As long as you have the time, space and resources to help.

The importance of allyship in the workplace

Being an ally every day is important, and should also be taken to your workplace. Whether you’re an employee, team leader, manager, or director – you need to be an ally for those around you.

By better understanding the struggle and oppression that others face, you are learning yourself and actively attempting to make a change, so this doesn’t happen. By supporting people in the workplace through allyship, you can work towards creating a safer space.

The various types of allyship

There are different ways to be an ally, which are sometimes broken down into different names. Take a look below to learn a bit more about some allyship terminology.

Performative allyship

The main way people get allyship wrong, and possibly do more harm to a group of people, is called ‘performative allyship’.

This is when a person takes steps to profess support for a marginalised group when there is something in it for them.

Examples of performative allyship are posting on social media about a cause and receiving many ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ but not taking any further action to support the cause in which your social media says you care deeply.

In the workplace, performative allyship often looks like a senior person sending a whole company email saying they are ’sponsoring’ or ‘championing’ a group but never bringing up the rights/needs of this group in important meetings or when decisions are being made.

Performative allyship erodes trust and can lead to further exclusion and feelings of being repeatedly let down.

Intersectional allyship

Intersectionality is how social categorisations, such as race, class and gender, apply to an individual or group. This means there will be overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

In simple terms, intersectionality is acknowledging that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression.

To be an intersectional ally, you should be constantly aware and recognise the individual experiences that people can face, all of which may be different. Recognise and honour identities, as well as work to rectify interlocking systems of oppression.

Upstander

Being an upstander refers to being the opposite of a bystander. When an ally becomes an upstander, they see things that are wrong and act on them.

For example, this could be pushing back on offensive jokes or comments – even if nobody has directly been hurt by the remarks. You can be an upstander by speaking up if you witness unfair behaviour and supporting those who may have been victims of comments.

Confidant

Being a confidant means you are an ally that creates a safe space for people to express their fears, frustrations and needs.

By listening to stories and experiences, whilst fully believing their individual experience, you can make them feel supported and safe.

What can we do to be allies?

So, how do we get allyship right? It can be tough to understand where to start with being an ally, but we are here to help. Take a look below at where to start with being an ally.

Learn

The first thing anyone who wants to improve their allyship needs to do is invest in learning. We need to get an understanding of the issues facing the marginalised group, the barriers which they are confronting and some perspective on what it is like to be from that group.

As an ally, you will never be able to understand in the same way as a person with lived experienced will. That’s ok because it’s not your role. But if you don’t have a broad understanding you risk “putting your foot in it” during sensitive moments or taking steps in the wrong direction.

A great way to learn about different diverse groups is by reading other blogs on this website or attending our webinars (members get free access).

Listen

The second thing is to ask and listen. Find out what the community needs from you as an ally. Do they need signatures to get a Bill of rights through Parliament? Do they need you to bring up their cause in a senior-level meeting? Do they need you to change a Policy to include them? Do they need you to challenge behaviour?

Advocate

To be an ally actions and words must align. Now is the time you need to act and advocate for others. You could do this by:

  • Sharing opportunities with others
  • Listening to feedback and not viewing it as a personal attack
  • Self-reflect on your own behaviours
  • Call out inappropriate behaviours such as microaggressions and banter (even if the person didn’t mean it)
  • Advocate that your peers to join diversity and inclusion initiatives
  • Use inclusive language (see here further information on pronouns)
  • Giving up your space at an event/dinner/awards for someone from a marginalised group to attend
  • Inviting a spokesperson of the group to attend decision-making meetings
  • Build trust by being consistent with your allyship

Become an ally with the help of Inclusive Employers

At Inclusive Employers, we have been helping organisations for years to build cultures of allyship.

If you want to find out about how we can run an allyship programme in your organisation, chat to your account manager. If you’re not yet a member, get in touch here.