Being an Ally: Educate, Create, Celebrate, Challenge … and Repeat

“We view allyship as a strategic mechanism used by individuals to become collaborators, accomplices, and coconspirators who fight injustice and promote equity in the workplace through supportive personal relationships and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy” 

Harvard Business Review 2020  

As a father to my little girl, a husband to my kick-ass professional wife, and a colleague to countless amazing females in my network, who are killing it out there right now, I was honoured to be invited to a recent webinar session to talk about being and ally. 

Many will already know I currently sit on the Business Continuity Institute’s Global Board of Directors, as a member representative. It is therefore vital that with this platform I find opportunities to support and represent these important discussions. 

Start With an Apology… 

As a white male, I can’t deny that my privilege has certainly had a significant contribution to the direction of my career. It’s only recently that I have become far more aware of the dominant culture that I have benefited from for many years. I’ve also become aware of how dangerously ignorant I once was!

I can’t honestly represent my current values in this post without acknowledging (and apologising) for the views I once ignorantly held before. So here goes…

There is a conversation which circulates in my mind regularly from a very long time ago, which on reflection, I am incredibly ashamed of. However, I think it’s very important to remind myself of just how much a perception can change with awareness and experience. It also demonstrates how dangerous that an uneducated view can be!

Disclaimer! What I’m about to say does not reflect how I feel now. I was young and very ignorant to a lot of things back then.

The Dangers of Ignorance in a Dominant Culture

Fresh out of university and at work I was speaking to one of my fellow graduates who now worked for the same company as me in our first role. We are talking about where we would like to take our careers and she remarked on how she would like to also plan for a family one day. I remember at the time I said: 

“I can’t understand how it could be fair that two people from the same university, with the same degree and the same grade go to work for the same company for five years, and in that time the female could potentially have two or three babies and may only work for two or so years. Yet, on her CV, she would have five years’ experience and it would be fair game for her to apply for the same jobs that I’ve worked longer for. This feels incredibly unfair…”

Me a long time ago… (sorry)

*Facepalm*I know, right? I sigh as I write this…

What was I thinking?!? I can’t believe for a second that this was ever my opinion and I’m embarrassed on a regular basis when I think back to that coming out of my mouth. However, at the time it felt like a very natural opinion to me. I wasn’t even close to being aware of just how unbalanced the game really was (and also in my favour). 

If you haven’t already, go out and buy the Gill Whitty-Collins Book “Why Men Win At Work” book… 

“…ask a goldfish in a bowl – how’s the water? They’ll say what water?” Those who are part of a dominant culture are unlikely to see that it even exists”

Gill Whitty Collins

This book, combined with what I now regularly witness, has broken the glass of my fishbowl! Now I see it, it’s everywhere. 

I think one of the reasons I share my honest example is because it demonstrates how easy it is to not see the full picture and therefore miss out on the opportunity to help. Even an individual, who is part of the dominant culture, but perceives themselves to be a good person and with the right values, can still get it incredibly wrong! We are all learning.

This is exactly why we need to keep having conversations. 

Webinar Answers and More

I was recently invited to be on a panel discussion that was put together by Women in Resilience (WIR). This is a global volunteer group of individuals that devote their time to providing a platform for equality in the workplace and spotlight women who work in resilience. A profession that still remains to be male dominated. 

I couldn’t help myself but blog the answers to some of the questions posed to me ahead of the ally webinar. In the spirit of sharing and growing together, please take a look at the types of answers/advice that I provided and some of the resources that I point to.

What should women look for when choosing a male sponsor? 

I think some of the considerations for a sponsor are the same as those when choosing a mentor. I actually touched on this partly via a blog I did on mentoring when I referred to a Forbes article about female mentorship.  

Some people might disagree, but I believe that you need to have some similarities and shared values with those that you’re hoping to sponsor you. This can make the whole process a lot easier and mutually beneficial (because they believe in the same things you believe in). In terms of looking for a male sponsor, I think actions speak louder than words. So, I would be asking myself these questions: 

  • Have you experienced or witnessed the individual take positive action to support equality in the workplace?  
  • Alternatively, have you experienced or witnessed examples of where the individual has not taken action where it could have been possible? 
  • Do you believe the individual shares a similar pattern of values to the ones that you hold?
  • Does the individual have your best interests at heart? 

When I talk about taking, or not taking positive action, it can take the form of many different things; from subtle intervention during meetings, to the open support of female colleagues both inside and outside the organisation. It could also be active mentoring or reverse mentoring with female professionals. The individual might also openly share content on related topics and issues to help generate awareness. 

There are plenty of ways to see whether an individual could be the ideal sponsor for you. Of course, you’ll have to cross reference that with exactly what it is that you want and the value systems that you hold, as well as where you want to take your career. 

If you haven’t seen this already, I highly suggest taking 10 minutes out of your day to watch Carla Harris in her TED talk about how to find the person who can help you get ahead at work. First of all, Carla is a senior Managing Director at Morgan Stanley and, in my opinion, is a shining icon for men and women everywhere. I highly recommend you look at her talks.  In this clip, she talks about the “a-ha” moment during the round table performance evaluations.  The meritocracy i.e. get your head down and work hard is a myth and  what you really need is someone to speak for you i.e. somebody supporting you on your behalf and in your favour = a sponsor. 

What advice would you give men looking to become a sponsor? 

It’s simple to me. To be a sponsor, you need to publicly and openly create visibility for the individual, find opportunities for them to succeed and support their successes.  

There’s a really good article in the Rutgers Business Review which breaks what you need to do and down into loads of steps. However, at its highest level they advise that you need to: 

1) Be her raving fan  

2) Provide cover and share your social capital  

3) Nominate her for stretch opportunities  

Can’t be any simpler than that.  

One other piece of advice (or rather caution) is that you seriously need to consider whether you are going to proactively do exactly what the label suggests. I’m not talking about capacity; we will all do what we can and we have our limitations with time etc. I’m talking about calling yourself an ally or a sponsor and turn up to a webinar or a session then do nothing with it.   

Actions speak louder than words – are you really an ally?  

As an Ally, how do you appropriately call out Bias when you see it? And,  how have you overcome your own bias? 

I think calling out bias sounds so simple but from my experience has been one of the most challenging aspects of trying to be an ally. Not least because I’m still educating myself about the list of inappropriate things that happen in the workplace. These things can be so subtle and passive such as microaggressions that I previously didn’t even notice. So, the first hurdle is to notice, which sounds simple but it’s not because it comes with awareness.  

Secondly, the next challenge is knowing how to call out bias. It’s not about jumping across the table and defending a female’s honour and pinning someone down to the ground until they retract what they said or apologise. The fact is, inaction is action and by doing nothing, you are essentially saying that it’s okay to behave like this…and it’s not. Learning when to call out bias and in what way is an ongoing endeavour.  

I can’t be alone in this because there is so much stuff online available to help people like me understand the above two challenges. Harvard University offers a 4-page leaflet, which gives a really useful high-level guide about the things you need to think about. This guidance talks about two approaches known as calling in and calling out. The former relates to relationships in the workplace where you might be closer to the individual that might have acted inappropriately and you can take them to one side in a safe and trusted environment to both explain to them what you saw and ask them if they understood the consequences of their actions. The latter relates to a more urgent need to press the pause button and openly call someone out. The Harvard guidance also gives really practical steps about what to do when you are personally called out. 

Calling Out  

So, and a good example of calling out that I’ve used in the past and is slightly more subtle relates to when a male is presenting something that I am aware has been mostly worked on (or even owned) by a female colleague. I have muscle memory in this now because it’s happened so many times around me. If the individual presents information as if it were theirs and I know that to be different I will deliberately ask a benign question but precede it with a statement like: 

“Thanks for the briefing, I’m conscious X did the majority of the work in this space and has a lot of the background so this might be a question better answered by her but….” 

For those that aren’t particularly good with conflict management, this is often a good way to start influencing a room of people where your female colleagues aren’t being recognised. 

Calling In 

The best example I can give to calling in is a moment I recently experienced when preparing for a presentation with several individuals (2 men and 2 women). One of the other men took the time to write to me afterwards 1:1 to point out I was monopolising the conversation and was talking over our female colleagues. At the time I didn’t even realise that I was doing this. The fact that this guy took the time to explain that to me gave me pause for thought and I duly apologised to my female colleagues.  

What’s your experience with the gender pay gap? 

Most recently,  I took part in a compensation study that covered 39 different countries, for which in return I received a report of the analysis (coordinated by a prominent female professional in the business continuity industry, Cheyene Marling). In the report, it cited that in full time permanent positions women were on average paid 8% less than men and 26% less when a consultant/contractor. This research is from real professionals around the world both men and women and they’re being honest about how much they get paid. I fully trust the data in the report and I’m saddened to see the results. At the end of the day there really is no excuse for the pay gap. 

I have also had courtside seats to watch the smartest most capable woman that I’ve ever met face so many more challenges than me when it came to being paid what they’re worth. (FYI this is the woman I married and she’s 1000% the professional I am but I believe that my privilege helped make those conversations a hell of a lot easier for me than her.  

Final Thoughts (for now)

Look, in terms of calling out bias, some men will take their time to do the right thing. Firstly, they have to see it. Secondly, they have to make time to raise their own awareness. Thirdly, they have to get it wrong and be okay with the fact it’s a continued journey of learning. Finally, you need to develop and practise (regularly) methods to appropriately call in and call out male colleagues in the workplace.  

To me, the positive side of being an ally is easy. Be a cheerleader, create opportunities and share your social capital.  

Educate, Create, Celebrate, Challenge … and Repeat