Understanding Allyship: The Power and Challenges of Standing Up for Others


The Power and Challenges of Allyship


Allyship is the active and consistent practice of using one’s privilege to support and advocate for marginalised groups. It involves understanding the challenges faced by these groups, amplifying their voices, and taking concrete actions to promote equality and justice. It is a continuous process of learning, listening, and taking action to challenge systemic inequalities and support those who are less privileged. Allyship is not a one-time act but an ongoing commitment to creating an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and supported.

By standing with marginalised communities, allies contribute to creating more inclusive and equitable environments. This not only benefits those directly affected by discrimination but also enriches the overall community by fostering diversity, innovation, and a sense of belonging.

Allyship in the workplace is particularly challenging due to ingrained cultural norms, power dynamics, and the fear of professional repercussions. Workplaces often have established hierarchies and unspoken rules that can discourage employees from stepping out of line. Additionally, there is the challenge of balancing genuine support with performative allyship, where actions are taken for appearances rather than genuine commitment to change.

Why Should Business Leaders Care About Allyship?

Allyship is not just a social or ethical imperative; it has significant business implications. Here’s why business leaders should prioritise allyship:

  1. Enhances Employee Engagement and Retention: When employees feel that they are part of an inclusive and supportive work environment, they are more likely to be engaged and satisfied with their jobs. This leads to higher retention rates, reducing the costs associated with high turnover. According to a report by Deloitte, inclusive companies are 1.7 times more likely to be innovation leaders in their market and have 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period.

  2. Boosts Innovation and Creativity: Diverse teams that feel supported and included are more innovative and creative. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation. Allyship helps create a safe space where all employees can contribute their unique perspectives and ideas, driving creativity and problem-solving.

  3. Improves Company Reputation and Attracts Talent: Organisations known for their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are more attractive to top talent. A Glassdoor survey revealed that 67% of job seekers consider workplace diversity an important factor when evaluating job offers. Demonstrating allyship can enhance a company’s reputation as an employer of choice, attracting a broader and more skilled talent pool.

  4. Increases Market Reach and Customer Loyalty: Businesses that embrace allyship are better positioned to understand and serve a diverse customer base. This understanding can lead to more tailored products and services, expanding market reach. Moreover, consumers are increasingly looking to support companies that reflect their values. A study by Cone Communications found that 87% of Americans will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about, and 76% will refuse to buy from a company that supports an issue contrary to their beliefs.

  5. Mitigates Legal and Financial Risks: Fostering an inclusive workplace through allyship can reduce the risk of discrimination lawsuits and other legal issues. By proactively addressing issues of inequality and creating a supportive environment, businesses can avoid the financial and reputational damage that comes from discrimination claims.

""An ally’s job is about building trust, holding yourself accountable, and using your privilege to raise issues of inequality and injustice for others who do not feel safe to speak up and are silenced by their fear. It is our job, everyday, to challenge the environment to make it psychologically safe for everyone to speak up.

The Gap Between Intention and Action

Despite widespread recognition of the importance of allyship, there is often a significant gap between people’s intentions and their actions.

Many express a willingness to support others but fail to follow through when the moment arises. For example, a survey by Lean In and McKinsey found that while 77% of men consider themselves allies to women at work, only 45% consistently advocate for gender equality in critical moments . Similarly, a report by Catalyst indicated that 66% of employees see themselves as allies to people of color, but only 19% intervene when witnessing discrimination .This discrepancy can be attributed to several factors:

  1. Fear of Repercussion: Concerns about personal or professional backlash can deter individuals from speaking out.
  2. Lack of Understanding: Insufficient knowledge about the issues facing marginalised groups can result in hesitation.
  3. Bystander Effect: The presence of others can lead individuals to assume someone else will take action.
  4. Complacency and Inaction: Comfort in one’s own position can lead to a lack of motivation to challenge the status quo.

Tips for Leaders to Foster Allyship

  1. Lead by Example: Business leaders should model allyship through their actions and decisions. This includes actively supporting DEI initiatives, speaking out against discrimination, and demonstrating a commitment to learning about the challenges faced by marginalised groups.

  2. Implement Comprehensive Training Programs: Offer training programs that educate employees about unconscious bias, privilege, and effective allyship practices. Regular workshops and seminars can help build a more inclusive culture and equip employees with the tools to be effective allies.

  3. Create Safe Spaces for Dialogue: Establish forums and support groups where employees can share their experiences and concerns without fear of retaliation. This can foster open communication and a deeper understanding of the issues affecting marginalised groups within the organisation.

  4. Develop Clear Policies and Accountability Measures: Implement policies that promote diversity and inclusion, and establish clear consequences for discriminatory behavior. Regularly assess and report on the progress of DEI initiatives to ensure accountability at all levels of the organisation.

  5. Recognise and Reward Allyship: Acknowledge and reward employees who demonstrate strong allyship. This can encourage others to follow suit and create a culture where allyship is valued and celebrated.

Stats to get your head around

  1. Gender Allyship: A study by BCG found that only 27% of men frequently mentor or sponsor women in their organizations, despite 86% of men recognizing the importance of such actions for gender equality .

  2. Racial Allyship: According to a PwC report, 60% of employees of color believe that allyship programs are effective in improving racial equality at work, yet only 34% of companies have formal allyship programs in place .

  3. LGBTQ+ Allyship: The Human Rights Campaign’s 2020 Corporate Equality Index reported that 91% of Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, but only 57% include gender identity, highlighting a gap in comprehensive LGBTQ+ allyship .

  4. Disability Allyship: A report by Accenture found that companies that champion disability inclusion have 28% higher revenue and 30% higher profit margins. Despite this, only 29% of employees say their companies are committed to disability allyship .

  5. General Allyship Behaviour: Catalyst’s research indicates that 45% of employees believe that their organization’s leadership supports inclusion, but only 29% feel that their peers are active allies, showing a discrepancy between leadership intentions and peer actions .

These statistics underscore the varying degrees of allyship across different dimensions and the gap between recognition and action.

Individual Action

Individuals can enhance their allyship by:

  1. Educating Themselves: Continuously learning about the challenges faced by marginalised groups.
  2. Listening and Amplifying: Prioritising the voices of those affected and amplifying their messages.
  3. Taking Risks: Willingly taking personal and professional risks to stand up against injustice.
  4. Reflecting and Growing: Regularly reflecting on personal biases and actively working to overcome them.

“The best way to be an ally is to listen more, talk less, and show up when it counts.” – Brittany Packnett

 “Allyship is not an identity—it is a lifelong commitment to action and accountability.” – Anonymous

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King Jr.


Allyship in Practice

  • Nike’s Trouble with Inclusivity: The Case of Allyson Felix

    The Incident

    Nike, a global sportswear giant, faced significant backlash over its treatment of female athletes, particularly around issues of maternity. One of the most prominent cases involved Allyson Felix, an Olympic sprinter and one of the most decorated athletes in track and field history. In 2019, Felix publicly criticized Nike for its lack of support and discriminatory practices towards pregnant athletes.

    Allyson Felix’s Story

    Allyson Felix was sponsored by Nike for several years, and during this time, she achieved remarkable success on the track. However, her relationship with Nike soured when she became pregnant. In an op-ed for The New York Times published in May 2019, Felix revealed that Nike wanted to pay her 70% less after she became pregnant with her first child. She described the company’s failure to guarantee that she wouldn’t be penalized if her performance declined due to pregnancy-related reasons.

    Felix wrote, “If I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections, who could?” Her experience highlighted the broader issue of how female athletes were being treated by sponsors when they chose to start a family. Felix’s courageous stand drew significant media attention and sparked a broader conversation about gender equity and maternity protections in sports.

    Nike’s Response and Policy Changes

    In response to the backlash, Nike announced policy changes to better support female athletes. The company pledged to not apply any performance-related reductions for 18 months around pregnancy. Nike’s new maternity policy, announced in 2019, ensured that female athletes would not face pay cuts or penalties related to pregnancy and postpartum recovery periods.

    Why This Matters for Allyship and Inclusivity

    Nike’s initial treatment of Allyson Felix exemplifies the challenges faced by women, especially athletes, when balancing professional careers and motherhood. The backlash against Nike underscored the need for better support systems and fair treatment of all employees, regardless of gender or parental status. This incident serves as a reminder of the importance of allyship in advocating for policies that support inclusivity and equity.

    Lesson Learned?

    Allyson Felix’s case against Nike in 2019 was a pivotal moment that highlighted significant issues of gender discrimination and the need for better maternity protections. Her advocacy not only brought about changes within Nike but also spurred a broader dialogue on the importance of inclusivity and support for female athletes. This example illustrates why business leaders must prioritize allyship and inclusivity to create equitable environments where all individuals can thrive.

Numerous stories highlight both successful and challenging aspects of workplace allyship. Here are some notable examples:

  1. Microsoft: In 2021, Microsoft announced the Racial Equity Initiative, committing $150 million to double the number of Black and African American people managers, senior individual contributors, and senior leaders in the U.S. by 2025. The company also pledged to increase supplier diversity and expand engagement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) .

  2. Starbucks: In response to the arrest of two Black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks in 2018, the company closed over 8,000 U.S. stores for a day to conduct racial bias training for its employees. This move was part of a broader commitment to address systemic racism and promote inclusion .

  3. Airbnb: Following incidents of racial discrimination by hosts, Airbnb launched its “We Accept” campaign, emphasizing the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. The company also implemented policies to prevent discrimination and enhance the support for marginalised groups within its community .

Key Takeaways:

  • Allyship is a critical component of creating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace.
  • For business leaders, fostering allyship is not only a moral responsibility but also a strategic advantage.
  • By promoting allyship, leaders can enhance employee engagement, drive innovation, attract top talent, expand market reach, and mitigate legal risks.
  • Ultimately, embracing allyship can lead to a more resilient and successful organisation, equipped to thrive in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.

“Neuroscience is the foundation for the approach we bring to every engagement, and it provides a means for consistently making informed decisions that accelerate organisational performance and well-being”.  Carolyn Grant

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