Allyship and making a difference

Allyship is about acknowledging and understanding inequities and taking action to help level the playing field, explains Kate Kearins. 

Listening to senior business colleagues introduce themselves, I’m hearing less about their specific areas of expertise and more about what they stand for and why they choose to do work they do. 

There’s often a sense of being in a privileged position and a strong current of wanting to make a difference, including for others less privileged. But it can be challenging to effect.

Here’s where the idea of allyship can be helpful. At its core, allyship is about acknowledging and understanding inequities and taking action to help level the playing field.

But before we can be allies to those whose lived experiences differ from our own, we must, of course, acknowledge and understand our privilege – be it based on our ethnicity, gender, upbringing, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and/or physical and mental abilities.

Different aspects of our identity combine to expose us to advantage or disadvantage.

Intersectionality is, therefore, central to allyship, since our positions of privilege (eg, as a white member of the executive team) can co-exist with experiences of marginalisation (eg, as an older woman in the workforce).

It’s also about acknowledging that it can be uncomfortable to sit in this space, where good intentions around allyship can be unintentionally poorly executed or misconstrued. 

How, then, can managers approach allyship – as individuals, as team leaders, and as members of a wider organisation?, a US-based company that develops workshops on allyship for organisations worldwide (including here in New Zealand), defines allyship as: an active and consistent effort to use your privilege and power to support and advocate for people with less privilege.

The key words here are “active” and “consistent”. 

The mandate to be “active” in this space can be particularly hard for us Kiwis – we often appear culturally bound to keep a low profile, stay under the radar, and shy away from anything that could be considered tall poppy syndrome. 

But that ability to speak up and speak out when inequity is at play is vital to being a good ally. As the facilitator of a recent workshop noted, “Silence is a neutral position.” 

When it comes to allyship, the mantra is “don’t be a Switzerland”. 

Equally important (and challenging) is the need to be “consistent” in our allyship – addressing issues of injustice from a personal position while also understanding the structural forces that create and maintain privilege in the first place.

It won’t be surprising to know that authenticity is key to allyship. 

Authentic listening to the experiences of others, authentic communication about our own experiences with privilege, authentic efforts to remedy the experiences of being overlooked (for plum roles or promotion), underpaid (compared to colleagues), and uninvited (to develop policy, create strategy, or sit at the decision-making table).

Check your own privilege, chuck out your assumptions, and check in with those who you could meaningfully support.

There’s work in being an ally, in not assuming we know how it is for others and in taking the time to learn about and understand others’ positions, and in standing up for, and alongside, them appropriately and effectively. 

It’s not about one-offs and grandstanding, but really caring, and being committed to make a difference for others not oneself.

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University.

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