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Workplace Allies Serve as Ambassadors for Change

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​People can serve as allies for co-workers through simple actions that will have lasting, beneficial effects on those co-workers' careers and, in the process, will create an inclusive work environment.

Men play a pivotal role in creating workplaces where male and female employees can succeed, according to Catalyst. The New York City-based global nonprofit helps organizations advance women in the workplace, and it encourages employers to engage men as champions and build inclusive cultures.

Many men would take more action to make their workplace inclusive if they knew what to do, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

To teach them, The Ohio State University has an Advocates and Allies for Equity initiative to help advance the professional interests of female faculty and staff and employees in other underrepresented groups. The university is using the program to build a cross-campus network of male allies and introduce them to specific, practical actions to help men better support women at the university.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employee Career Paths and Ladders

And Catalyst created Men Advocating for Real Change (MARC) to encourage its male employees to improve gender equality in the workplace. Its 1 1/2-day, immersive MARC Leaders Workshop helps men lead diversity and inclusion efforts in the workplace.

In February, Chevron Corp. gave Catalyst a $5 million grant to support the MARC initiative. The money will be used to roll out MARC Teams to its supporter companies—corporations, firms, associations, academic institutions and other organizations—to create grassroots support for gender equality around the world.

Men also are more likely to support diversity when they are made aware that their behavior has made a difference, Columbia University research found. It suggests employers give men a specific role in gender-diversity efforts.

It's important, for example, for men to speak up if they notice female colleagues being judged differently from their male colleagues, according to Karen Catlin of San Mateo, Calif. She is the author of Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces (Karen Catlin Consulting, 2019) and has worked for 25 years in the tech field.

She recalled talking with a man on her staff at Adobe who had a senior position open on his team. When she asked if he planned to promote his top employee—a woman—he said that, because she was the mother of young children, he didn't think she would want the travel associated with the job. When Catlin pointed out that the decision was the woman's to make, he offered his employee the job; she accepted and has excelled in the role.

Having men act as positive examples to other men is critical for fostering diversity and inclusion, according to 2017 research from Catalyst. Among its tips to organizations: Visibly recognize men for solution-building so other men have role models to emulate.

Anyone Can Be an Ally 

Women also can be powerful allies. Catlin cited herself—a self-described straight, white woman with no physical disabilities—as an example.

"As a woman, I'm definitely a member of an underrepresented group, [but] I can be an ally for someone in the LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer] community. I could be an advocate for a man of color, for someone with disabilities, for a man who has less education than myself."

Everyone can advocate for underrepresented people in small ways, according to Melinda Epler. She is founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, a firm in San Francisco that works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion issues. 

"Your gender, your race, your ethnicity, your religion, your disability, your sexual orientation, your class, your geography—all of these can give you more or fewer opportunities for success.

"That's where 'allyship' comes in. Allyship is about understanding that imbalance in opportunity and working to correct it," she said during her TEDTalk, "3 Ways to be a Better Ally in the Workplace." 

Allies can open career doors, but they don't have to be able to directly promote others. They can serve as mentors or sponsors to people in underrepresented groups, as well as provide career nudges.

"Sometimes allies need to be sounding boards before they can become door openers," according to Catlin.

Beware, though, of acting like a knight in shining armor who rushes in to "save" a woman—or anyone in an underrepresented group—as if that person is weak or helpless, she cautioned.

While well-meant, it can be off-putting. "Knights" help one person in one moment to overcome an inequity; allies serve as ambassadors for change. Catlin shared the following scenario as an example:

A member of a hiring committee discussing an employee of color says the candidate is not a good fit. A knight might speak up for the candidate and offer to assist him or her if that person is hired. An ally would suggest evaluating the hiring criteria to make sure it's objective before discounting a candidate.

An ally's role in gender equality is essential, said Shuchi Sharma, global head of gender equality and intelligence at SAP, a multinational software corporation based in Germany. And organizations can recognize allyship at every level and provide open forums for employees to learn, engage and practice inclusive behaviors. SAP's Activating Men for Parity (AMP) program, for example, empowers a critical mass of male allies to be agents of change, she noted. 

"It's important," Sharma said, "for employees to know that they can sponsor women, advocate on their behalf, introduce them to others within their network and open new doors for them."  


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