Report: ‘Allies’ Aren’t Taking Basic Actions in the Workplace

Advocacy, mentorship and sponsorship are critical

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek October 12, 2021
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white male boss mentoring Black female employee

​There is a notable difference between workplace allyship actions that women of color find most meaningful and the actions white employees prioritize, according to a new report from McKinsey and Lean In.

"Although more than three-quarters of white employees consider themselves allies to women of color at work, less than half take basic allyship actions such as speaking out against bias or advocating for new opportunities for women of color," researchers wrote in Women in the Workplace.

The report is based on a 2021 survey of more than 65,000 employees; information collected from 423 organizations; and interviews conducted with women of diverse identities, including women of color, women who identify as LGBTQ+ and women with disabilities.

White employees recognize the importance of speaking out against discrimination, the report said, but although 77 percent of respondents consider themselves allies to women of color at work, "far fewer are consistently taking key allyship actions."

Such actions include giving credit to women of color for their ideas and work; mentoring or sponsoring one or more women of color; advocating on these workers' behalf for new opportunities; actively confronting discrimination against women of color; and educating themselves about the experiences of women of color.

Only 10 percent of employees surveyed mentor or sponsor one or more woman of color, and 39 percent actively confront discrimination against women of color. And in the past year, just 14 percent of employees received allyship training.

Tauhidah Shakir, vice president of HR and chief diversity officer at Paylocity, said she thinks an allyship gap exists because some people see allyship as a one-time commitment to an underrepresented individual.

Paylocity encourages allyship through inclusive leadership trainings, she noted, and through its mentorship program.  

"Some view allyship as a moment in time instead of a lifelong constant commitment to taking action against biases, discrimination, unfair systems and practices that prevent all underrepresented individuals and/or groups from equal opportunities," she said. "The latter is a much heavier lift, which may deter some potential allies from engaging."

White Men as Allies

Women of color experience more retaliation when they speak out against bias and discrimination at work compared to white men (32 percent versus 6 percent), according to the Women in the Workplace report.

That is one of the reasons it is important for white men to be part of the allyship equation, according to Michael Baran, Ph.D., co-author of Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions (Berrett-Koehler, 2020). The senior partner for Chicago-based inQUEST Consulting will offer strategies for engaging white men as DE&I allies on Oct. 25 at the SHRM INCLUSION 2021 conference in Austin, Texas.  

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"When you're in the majority, you often don't see the ways other people get excluded or left out or not valued or discriminated against," Baran said. Serving as an ally is an "investment in your co-workers and an investment in your teams and your organization. … It's really important to get people to see that."

Allyship can be as simple as speaking up when credit is given to another person for an idea a woman in the room already voiced, Baran noted, or redirecting a conversation if a man talks over a woman when she has the floor.

"Notice the ways people are getting excluded," he advised. That includes examining hiring decisions and taking a look at one's own professional networks. 

"There can be formal components, but even more than that it's taking in the lessons and the spirit of equity and inclusion that you do throughout your day," he said. "Making big decisions, strategic planning, social events. It's everything."

Women as Allies

Women often are allies to other women, according to the report, with women twice as likely as men to support employee resource groups and become involved in other DE&I work that falls outside their formal responsibilities.

For example, 61 percent of female leaders take at least three different types of allyship action—such as mentoring women of color, advocating new opportunities for them and actively confronting discriminations—versus 43 percent of male leaders. And 73 percent of female senior leaders do this compared with 64 percent of male senior leaders.

Female leaders with traditionally marginalized identities are even more likely to contribute to DE&I efforts. Among women at the manager level and above, Black women, women who identify as LGBTQ+, and women with disabilities are up to twice as likely as women overall to spend a substantial amount of time on DE&I work outside their formal job responsibilities.

How to Teach Allyship

"At Microsoft we are refining how we think about allyship," wrote Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, Microsoft’s chief diversity officer, in a 2020 company blog.

Its mandatory allyship program consists of 10 segments that include self-paced classes, videos with actors portraying various work scenarios, and facilitated sessions around building skills and practicing allyship behavior.

"Although traditionally we might look to men in the workplace to carry the full weight of allyship, women in the workplace also have an opportunity to be thoughtful allies for others in their community," McIntyre wrote.

That's done, she noted, "in an intentional commitment to use your voice, credibility, knowledge, place or power to support others in the way they want to be supported. I am very aware of my opportunity, due to my personal privilege, to show up for other women in a meaningful way.

"I embrace my obligation to create space for other voices to be heard, not just on International Women's Day," observed in March every year, "but all year round."

Paylocity's Shakir suggested the following steps for creating allyship:

  • Talk about the different ways people can engage in allyship, such as by listening to understand issues impacting underrepresented groups in your workplace, speaking up against inequities when they arise, and pushing for changes to systems and practices that create barriers to diversity.
  • Create mentorship programs for underrepresented individuals in your organization, pairing them with a mentor and giving them the opportunity to share and be heard.

Rachel Thomas, founder and chief executive officer of Lean In, will unpack the report's findings Oct. 25 at SHRM INCLUSION 2021.

She will be joined by Daisy Auger-Dominguez, chief people officer at VICE Media Group; Tiffany Warren, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Sony Music group; and Kimberly Cummings, chief executive officer of Manifest Yourself, for the session Employees Think They're Allies but Their Actions Say Otherwise: Closing the Allyship Gap at Work.

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