We might all be talking about D&I more, but the issue of improving workplace diversity and allowing people to bring their whole selves to work is not new. One thing that has gained increasing prominence in the discussion, however, is the concept of allyship – someone bringing their privilege, power or influence in support of or to advance the needs of a marginalised or oppressed group.
With more and more businesses wrestling with how to tackle this social imperative, we wanted to explore how being a good ally helps support the creation of meaningful change within business. To that end, we brought together an expert panel to share what good allyship looks like, with practical examples of effective behaviours and actions. Our CEO Rob Walker and Catherine Osaigbovo, Director in our HR team, head up both our internal and external D&I efforts, and they hosted Rebecca Ormond, Inclusive Workplace Leader at PwC, Sky’s General Counsel Vicky Sandry and Stephen Williams, Transformation Programme Leader at Heathrow Airport.
Over a hundred attendees got to listen to an extensive discussion on allyship, and it is well worth a watch. We thought it was worth summarising some of the points our panellists made and in particular picked three things that people perhaps don’t consider when thinking about what being an ally means.
As Rebecca pointed out, because being an ally is linked with using your power and influence for good, many people take that to mean that only leaders can be allies. Yet this overlooks a fundamental truth, that we all have power and influence, even if we don’t have a leadership job title. She illustrated this with an example of when she was on a bus, where the driver didn’t intend to stop to pick up a wheelchair user. When it became apparent the bus wasn’t slowing down, a small boy asked loudly why it wasn’t stopping. This prompted the driver to re-examine his actions, stop and pick up the passenger.
Rebecca pointed out that the small child wouldn’t have been seen as a leader, but in that moment of empathy was an important ally to the wheelchair user. In the same way, we all have the opportunity to demonstrate small acts of allyship – if we assume only leaders can be allies, then we make it someone else’s job.
As a member of Sky’s executive team and a leading legal figure, Vicky Sandry is often used to being a minority being female. For many years, she championed gender diversity, but a listening exercise involving her own team made her rethink her bias and assumptions. She expected it to be a validation of her role as an ally, however she was shocked to find that many of the black, Asian and other minority members of her team didn’t feel included, able to speak up, be themselves or feel they could progress in a company where privileged people like Vicky were leaders. Having never considered herself privileged, Vicky was forced to re-examine her reaction to this feedback, and, as she went into further detail in this article, realised that even if she never felt like she had advantages in life, the truth was more complex.
Ultimately, to be a good ally means taking ego out of the conversation, being aware of your own privilege and being receptive and open to the challenges others are facing, even if you haven’t faced those barriers yourself.
As a black LA native, Stephen used a couple of his own experiences to demonstrate how there is no set mould for a good ally. On one occasion, after a double shift at a restaurant when he was 18, he parked outside his house at one in the morning and crossed the road. A nearby police car arrested him for jaywalking, and he ended up in a holding cell with 30 other men Stephen termed “hardened criminals”. Everyone boasted about how they ended up there with details of their crimes – when it came to Stephen, and his jaywalking admission, he said “my life flashed before my eyes.” Suddenly, another man stepped forward. A known drug lord, this man took Stephen under his wing and spent the next eight hours lecturing Stephen on the need to stay in school and not end up like everyone else in there.
Later on, one of Stephen’s first roles was with a golf company in the early 90s. Only he and the janitor were black – everyone else was white, but Stephen’s hiring managers were determined to drive change in the organisation. However, Stephen was not a diversity hire – as part of his role he had to record board and other meeting minutes. Before each meeting his managers would brief him on what was about to happen and how people would behave – they would then repeat the process after the meeting. This process gave Stephen a level of insight and understanding that would otherwise have taken years to gain.
These examples demonstrated how allies need to perceive the different barriers people face – what links the incarcerated drug dealer with the golf company managers was the ability to identify the guidance Stephen needed in order to navigate the unspoken rules of the environment he was then in.
After each of our panellists spoke, we took had an insightful question and answer session. To catch the full meeting, take a look here.