Active allyship the key to better diversity and inclusion

Trish Foster knows all there is to know about active allyship, the problem of white privilege and tackling racial bias

Allyship that actively promotes inclusion is not only good for the bottom line. It leads to a happier and more engaged workforce. As a result, people, particularly those from underrepresented groups, are more likely to stay with a company.

However, it’s not enough for someone to say they want to be an ally; they need to be trained and backed by a culture that supports it. According to Center for Women and Business Executive Director Trish Foster, allyship that lacks authenticity is performative rather than active.

“Performative allies may share their knowledge about inequity with others, but they don’t use it to make real change,” she explains. “You might say you have solidarity with a cause, but it’s disingenuous. The problem is if your words are not rooted in action, you’re actually hurting the people you’re meant to be supporting. You’re maintaining the status quo, and this is inequitable and demoralising.

“In contrast, an active ally is somebody who actively and intentionally promotes a culture of inclusion, and supports and advocates for co-workers who might be marginalised or underrepresented.”

Avoiding performative allyship

The non-profit centre that Foster runs at Bentley University, Massachusetts, is dedicated to creating more diverse and inclusive cultures within organisations.

Foster and the center partner with businesses and organisations to develop custom diversity and inclusion programmes. She and her colleagues give keynote speeches, provide thought leadership and produce research reports on critical diversity and inclusion topics.

One of those reports,  which Foster has just penned, delves into the causes of performative allyship, which includes a lack of resources and capacity. For example, the global spotlight on racial injustice has pushed some companies to take steps to address inequity over the past year. But these allyships sometimes fall short, resulting only in public statements or allocating money.

“Public statements and funding aren’t a bad thing, but stopping there is,” she argues. “That’s not going to change the systemic structural problems.

“To avoid performative allyship, you have to make long-term sustained commitments with a plan. You have to experiment and innovate; be comfortable knowing that not everything will work.”

Foster’s report also identifies fear of saying or doing the wrong thing as a stumbling block for individual allies. She also accepts that being an individual ally can be lonely but, when done well, it can lead to a powerful partnership across difference that results in transformation.

How to be an effective ally

So, how do companies and organisations create a culture that supports active allyship?

“Begin with inquiry,” Foster suggests. “That might mean listening sessions, surveys, one-on-one interviews, focus groups, or all of the above. After you understand, you need to start training folks to be allies. You have to provide them with knowledge and tools, not throw them in the deep end.

“Many organisations don’t have formal ally programmes. However, they’re still getting the job done by working through other channels – their employee resource groups, within teams and by offering broad-based learning opportunities across the organisation.

“It’s vital for people to understand that they cannot declare themselves an ally and then be one. It’s the people they are trying to help that will determine if they are an ally or not.

“Second, allies need to approach the people they are trying to help as collaborators or partners and not as victims.

“Last, to be a really effective ally, you have to take risks and embrace humility.”

Foster emphasizes the well-documented strong business and human cases for inclusion and allyship. For many businesses, developing an inclusive culture is associated with better productivity, greater shareholder value and enhanced reputation. At the individual level, allyship leads to happier employees who go above and beyond for their employers. They become more engaged and stay with their company, and, according to one statistic, employees who feel included are 167% more likely to recommend their organisations as great places to work.

Supporting remote workers

Given the current dominance of remote work, allyship is essential in helping people with disabilities – ensuring that they have adequate access to digital systems and their teams. Losing the human and spontaneous interaction that typically occurs in the workplace means that allies need to work harder to create connections.

Foster explains: “I would like to see frontline managers and leaders being sensitive to those who are struggling in a remote environment. Small gestures can matter, like looking for signals of sadness, exclusion or trauma during meetings.”

Foster suggests some simple solutions to mitigate the emotional impact, including virtual drop-in sessions and creating opportunities for downtime. Also, by being more open, leaders can create an environment that will strengthen ties.

White privilege and racial bias

Foster also discusses the issue of white privilege, which she describes as “a set of unearned benefits that accrue to a certain group based purely on their identity. As a white woman, I carry all sorts of privilege that I don’t have to think about.”

Some who haven’t explored the issue tend to argue that they’ve had to work hard to get where they are – “that it wasn’t just handed to them”.  But unclaimed privilege tends to perpetuate inequality, especially racial bias.

“I think that the subject of race remains a third rail in the workplace,” Foster argues. “By avoiding discussions or acknowledgement, we are obstructing progress. We have to remind ourselves and others that we allow systemic privilege and systemic power dynamics to remain when we don’t discuss it.

“A significant number of white professionals don’t believe that Black peers have a tougher climb to the top. I think the starting place to address this for most organisations and teams is introspection and authentic dialogue.”

She adds that while employee resource groups often lead the charge on diversity and inclusion, there is more risk of derailment when the work remains at the grassroots level. For sustainability, it’s crucial for senior executives to lead equity and inclusion efforts.

Helping to make businesses more diverse and inclusive is what makes Foster is so passionate about and what the Center for Women and Business is trying to achieve.

“We can truly make a difference,” she says. “I believe that, even though it may be small, every single time that we organize a forum, have a conversation, write an article or put out a report, we are moving the needle. This is absolutely mission-driven work that feels more like a vocation than a job.”

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