April 5, 2023

What is allyship?

Across the seven countries in which ISC Group operates, the most popular topic for a Bespoke Workshop is allyship. People are starting to engage with inclusion from a universal standpoint making this subject a natural launchpad. Not only are these sessions the most requested, but they are also the ones at which the audience is most reflective of the workforce. Traditionally, events focused on diversity and inclusion draw a majority woman audience which, when put in the context of the gender/seniority imbalance suggests that utilising topics with a more generalised appeal is imperative for long lasting improvements. There are simply not enough women at senior leadership to motivate the involvement of diversity and inclusion goals as a business target and there are not enough men participating in self-education to ensure that corporate diversity and inclusion efforts are not performative. Bearing this in mind, we wanted to breakdown what allyship really is and how to be an ally in the workplace.  


Eutopia is that everyone, regardless of their protected characteristic feels happy and safe enough to be able to do their job whilst also being given fair and equal access to opportunities. At present, this isn't the case and that’s where allies who are happy, feel safe and have access, can step in for others. An ally stands up and defends someone underrepresented whilst also taking the time to understand and appreciate why a colleague’s experience is different from their own; to be a truly good ally you must be proactive and reactive. To be a proactive ally, one must take the time to actively listen to colleagues and digest their experience in the workplace. The reactive aspect refers to action. An ally will stand beside an underrepresented group/person when they need support, stand behind them when they need back up, and step in front of them when they need projection. Sometimes thinking about a whole group can be daunting but by starting with your sphere of influence the impact can often be more far reaching than originally thought.

Not everyone is familiar or comfortable with the lexicon of D, E & I which creates a barrier to allyship right away. No one wants to say the wrong thing or use outdated terminology which could result in upsetting or offending a colleague. By embracing proactive allyship and taking time to self-educate, aspiring allies can overcome the trepidation that comes with beginning to engage in conversations. A lot of companies now have work streams dedicated to different aspects of diversity and are a great place to start learning about the experiences of colleagues and their priorities when it comes to creating an inclusive workplace.

Although it might not initially seem that allyship would be a part of the day-to-day working experience, it is important to consider all the different ways that someone can show their willingness to support. Much like managing a team, leading by example is crucial as is becoming aware of behaviours and how they may or may not create an environment in which everyone can thrive. Often managers encourage their reports to attend D, E & I events hosted internally, but aren't there themselves which fails to demonstrate the importance of these events. Team meetings are an opportunity to raise these topics and promote healthy and honest conversation.  

Allyship need not be a grand gesture, something as mundane as meeting etiquette allows for small opportunities for effective allyship. In a room full of men, starting on a note that doesn’t include everyone around the table can exclude people from the intended conversation beyond the small talk. Furthermore, corporate spaces very seldom leave room for introverted people. Small steps like setting an agenda allow reflective thinkers a chance to better prepare, giving those less likely to speak an opportunity to share by directing the conversation their way, even going a step further and give them a heads up that the conversation is coming their way are all examples of allyship. These simple acts ensure we are getting the best of people which undoubtably has the business benefit of maximising the diversity of thought around the table.  

There may be an instance where you see contrary behaviours to those described above and be wary of how to encourage colleagues to be more aware of inclusive behaviours. ‘Calling in’ looks a little different to ‘calling out’, it refers to finding a comfortable moment after the event to address how certain actions impact others which will encourage that individual to look introspectively. By encouraging reflection, we are promoting a space of psychological safety to explore our behaviours without fear of reproach.  

Trust is also an important part of allyship. Without trust, an ally will not be able to take their proactive education and put it into practise. It is unlikely that a colleague will approach another with a particularly egregious case of discrimination, micro-aggressions1 and generalised discomfort is much more commonplace. However, trust is integral to ensure that underrepresented colleagues feel comfortable sharing those experiences. This is why participating in company initiatives along with modelling inclusive behaviours are the first steps to allyship. If you can overtly showcase a keenness and willingness to support your colleagues, it is more likely that you will then be able to become a source of solace.  

This all might seem quite straightforward however allyship requires a conscious shift in behaviours for most who are familiar with workplace practices and behaviours which are tailored for the demographic majority. Below is a graph from Lean In which showcases how those surveyed feel they are allies verses the reality (specifically in the case of supporting women of colour). There is an evident demarcation between those who see themselves as allies and those who show they are allies. Inauthenticity is easy to spot and sews distrust. However, by encouraging a greater awareness of inclusivity through allyship we can become mindful and cognisant of how behaviours can create a workplace culture that works for everyone.

Interested in learning about ISC Bespoke Workshops and how we can help your company on its diversity and inclusion journey? Contact us!

1 - Microaggressions are small, everyday reminders that your difference is not valued. Examples of microaggressions might include talking over you, mispronouncing your name, others taking credit for your work, etc.


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