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Allyship as a Path to Equality

A lawyer, global activist and scholar offers insight into what allyship means—and how it can play a key role in promoting female leadership.

man talking to woman of color

Rangita de Silva de Alwis, a scholar and activist who has worked in more than 25 countries advocating for women’s rights with different governmental organizations, including the United Nations, is fed up with inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D) training.

In fact, this associate dean of international affairs at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and author of extensive research on gender disparities thinks prepackaged, mandated IE&D training on gender equality are exacerbating the problems they seek to address.

“Despite the millions of dollars invested in trainings, these programs do not show a reduction in sexual harassment or gender bias,” said de Silva de Alwis, who appeared on a panel featuring trailblazers on the path to global equity during the annual Linkage Women in Leadership Institute in November 2023 in Orlando, Fla.

“Poorly designed training can perpetuate the biases that these trainings are meant to combat,” de Silva de Alwis said. Reforming workplace culture to promote civility, respect, accountability and gender equity is more important than reductive training programs, she explained.

So, if not IE&D training, then what? Allyship, de Silva de Alwis said. Allyship is achieved when someone uses their position of power or advantage to advocate for co-workers with less power or status. Rather than mentorship or sponsorship, which can replicate top-down power dynamics, she noted, allyship strives to promote egalitarianism.

“Sponsorship can be seen as taking away the agency of a woman and women of color,” she explained. “Most often, there is a hierarchy and power imbalance. Sponsorship can reproduce those imbalances. Allyship is built on the notion that there is no hierarchy in the relationship. It is built on an alliance for the good of those without power.”

And because men greatly outnumber women in executive roles, they are often the obvious source of allyship. “It just makes sense to have men as allies,” de Silva de Alwis affirmed.

De Silva de Alwis has extensively explored the concept of allyship in her research. In one widely cited article, she and her students at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School surveyed 100 male law students about their philosophies of leadership and interviewed both male and female students about their experiences of bias and stereotypes. Using this, de Silva de Alwis and her colleagues cultivated a nuanced idea of allyship as a means of combating structural and systemic gender-based bias.

What does allyship look like? Actions that are practical, measurable and can have a lasting impact, de Silva de Alwis said. And because American women represent just 28 percent of executive positions in the S&P 100, it most often falls to men to give their female colleagues the opportunities that can help them advance.

“How many women have you hired?” de Silva de Alwis asked. “How many have you retained? How many have you advanced? How many conferences have you sent women to? Have they been speakers? Have they represented your company? Have you enabled them to do something that really boosts their careers?” Her research emphasizes the importance of diverse representation on the boards and panels that uphold the tiers of power in corporate and academic worlds.

These action items are essential to achieving gender diversity at the top, de Silva de Alwis said. Enabling women to take advantage of the opportunities they need to advance their careers can do much more to check the gender imbalance at corporate leadership levels than a mandated training class on equality.

“Rather than going to trainings that are banal and one-size-fits-all, you provide an opportunity to produce concrete metrics,” de Silva de Alwis said. And those metrics, she added, can be used as an effective measurement of what individuals and companies are doing to create real opportunities to bring more women into positions of power.

Prepackaged, mandated IE&D training sessions too often point out the obvious without getting to the heart of what holds women back from the upper levels of management, de Silva de Alwis said. In fact, they can worsen the situation.

“Things can become even more polarized,” she added. “If HR comes to you and asks, ‘Why are your teams not more diverse?’ managers can say, ‘Didn’t I go to the training? I did what you wanted me to do.’ So, it becomes a way to comply without there really being any follow-up.”

This is why allyship is much more powerful than IE&D training, de Silva de Alwis concluded.

“Instead of checking a DEI box, leadership should be held accountable for the diversity of their teams in concrete ways and should be expected to contribute to their employees’ growth,” she said. “We need to create an institutional power structure that promotes and values female leadership through committing to allyship.”

Barbara A. Gabriel is a managing editor at SHRM.


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