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Embracing Allyship to Build Bridges in the Workplace

People managers play an important role in demonstrating to others that diversity, equity and inclusion matter—and that racism will not be tolerated.

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​More than half (51 percent) of women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups experience racism in the workplace, according to a recent survey by Catalyst, a global nonprofit supported by many of the world's most powerful CEOs and leading companies that helps build workplaces that work for women.

Racism can affect women of color who belong to other marginalized groups to an even greater extent: The survey found that transgender women (67 percent) and queer women (63 percent) of color are more likely than cisgender heterosexual women (49 percent) of color to experience racism at work.

The study, which surveyed more than 2,700 women in Australia, Canada, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S., found that when leaders display allyship and curiosity, they can boost diversity in their organizations, making it less likely that women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups will experience racism. 

Catalyst defines allyship as "actively supporting people from marginalized groups" and explains, "It's about using as much institutional, social and/or cultural privilege or power as you have to advocate for people who face oppression." The organization also defines curiosity as "proactively seeking out different points of view, listening to others, learning, and reflecting on what you've heard." 

However, nearly half (49 percent) of survey respondents say senior leaders at their workplaces do not engage in allyship, and 43 percent say these leaders lack curiosity about how their own emotions, attitudes and experiences impact women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups. 

"When senior leaders display allyship and curiosity, employees are more likely to perceive that it's OK to speak up" about racism, says Kathrina Robotham, a senior research associate at Catalyst and one of the study's authors. Racism and bias often go unchecked if employees are afraid to constructively address problems and concerns in the workplace, she says.

Diversity experts say this is a common workplace issue. For example, if the highest-paid salesperson in an organization is allowed to make racist remarks without consequences, it sends a message to the rest of the staff that such behavior is acceptable and creates a culture of silence, says Aiko Bethea, CEO and founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting in Atlanta. 

"However, if bonuses are tied to behavior, then the highest-paid salesperson can no longer [afford to] be racist, sexist, or yell at people," Bethea says.

It's also important that a company's actions reflect its words, says Jennifer Tardy, CEO of Jennifer Tardy Consulting LLC in Bowie, Md. "Employees may also feel gaslighted if they observe public statements about the company's values and commitment to allyship, diversity and inclusion, but do not get to experience that commitment as an employee," she says.

People managers have an important role to play in setting the tone at work and demonstrating to others that diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) matter, and that racism will not be tolerated, Robotham says. 

How to Be an Ally

Allyship requires managers to model good behavior and correct their mistakes, Bethea says. For example, if a manager uses a word or term that is potentially hurtful to an employee and later recognizes the hurt they may have caused, they can show allyship by recognizing their mistake and making amends. That means going back to the staff member and saying, "I got that wrong. I realize when I did this, it had an impact on you and it could have been silencing to you," Bethea says. She adds that it's important to go beyond saying "I'm sorry" and to show an understanding of what was done and its potential impact.

Bethea says that allyship also means taking that apology a step further and addressing it in front of the team without calling out the staff member who was affected, saying, "I used this term and I won't use it again because it has this connotation." 

Some organizations are being proactive about cultivating allyship. Professional services firm PwC has created an Allyship Toolkit for employees that provides tools for individual reflection and group discussion on the topic. 

"With reflection, managers can better understand the motivation and the purpose they have for taking action as an ally," says Shannon Schuyler, chief purpose and inclusion officer at PwC. 

Tardy suggests that managers who want to be allies ask themselves:

  • As it relates to my desire to be an ally, what is my intention? Why is this important to me?
  • In what ways have I been supportive to an experience of inclusion and belonging on my team? 
  • In what ways have I been a hindrance to an experience of inclusion and belonging on my team?
  • In what areas do I still feel that I am unqualified, incapable or uncomfortable in being an ally to women's intersectional experiences in the workplace? Where do I still need to do the work? 

Cultivate Curiosity the Right Way

Curiosity about marginalized groups is often misunderstood in the workplace, Robotham says. She explains, "It's really about doing the work to educate yourself about racism and pursuing opportunities to learn about the experiences of people other than yourself." 

For example, Robotham says, attending a talk about career pathways for women from marginalized groups to learn how to advocate for them or reading a book about the history of racism can help answer questions you may have.

"When you're curious, it shows you are willing to say you don't know everything and you're willing to learn more, do things differently and say you're wrong," Bethea says.

However, experts warn that there are inappropriate ways of being curious. "It's not about asking a bunch of questions about Black people and racism," says Zee Clarke, a DE&I consultant and author of Black People Breathe (Ten Speed Press, 2023), a guide to help Black people heal from racial trauma.

Robotham warns against expecting people from marginalized groups to openly talk about their experiences. "Unless they are paid or volunteer to do so, don't automatically expect them to talk about that experience with you," she says. Asking inappropriate questions about their culture or their features—such as their hair—is another inappropriate way to demonstrate curiosity.

Clarke recommends doing your own research: "Using Google is a great way to express curiosity without putting the burden on others."

Curiosity shouldn't be limited to learning about other people and cultures. "It's also about asking yourself tough questions about how your biases influence you and how your own identity and privilege influence your biases and experiences," Robotham says.

However, inward curiosity may lead people to question the stories and beliefs they have about their families and communities. "You have to be willing to unlearn things, and that is really hard," Bethea says. "You might realize your grandparents used a bad word, and that may mean owning up to the idea that someone in your family was racist."

This type of discovery may lead to a feeling of loss and sadness, Bethea says, and those feelings can get in the way of being an ally: "In our society, it's easier to be angry than to grieve and be sad."

Embrace a Growth Mindset

While managers may perceive themselves as allies to marginalized groups, 49 percent of Catalyst's survey respondents don't share that perception. For managers, "[h]aving that belief inside your head is not the same as being in a relationship with people," says L. Taylor Phillips, an assistant professor of management and organizations at New York University's Stern School of Business.

It's important to get feedback from employees to confirm that they perceive their managers as allies. Phillips recommends regularly checking in with all employees—not just those from marginalized groups—and asking them if they feel supported at work or if there are equity issues they'd like to address. 

However, managers shouldn't expect to get allyship and curiosity right on the first try, Bethea says: "It's a journey, and managers need to keep practicing."

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.


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