Tsedale M. Melaku,
David G. Smith,
W. Brad Johnson
In the United States and many other parts of the world, we’re finally engaging in substantive conversations about a once untouchable issue: white male privilege. The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, as well as the systemic inequalities laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, have forced people in positions of power—that is, the white men who dominate leadership roles across public and private institutions—to realize that they must step up if there is to be any hope of making organizations more diverse, fair, and inclusive.
Many firms have reacted to recent events—from the revelations of workplace sexual harassment to the spate of brutality against Black Americans—with well-intended press releases and statements reaffirming commitments to social justice. Some have promised to make sizable donations to activist groups, support legal funds, do pro bono work, or create diversity task forces and speaker series. But many of these efforts lack action-oriented plans and targets.
For too long, leaders from majority groups have helped preserve the status quo, which favors them, by relegating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts to human resources instead of using their own power to effect change. This is in some ways understandable: Angie’s research shows that many white male leaders deny racism or avoid discussing it because those conversations feel uncomfortable or controversial. They fail to acknowledge their own privilege, insisting that they and their organizations are gender- and color-blind. Very few understand the problem and what steps they can take to be effective allies with marginalized groups.
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. Allies endeavor to drive systemic improvements to workplace policies, practices, and culture. In a society where customers, employees, and investors increasingly see equity and inclusion as not just a nice-to-have but a must-have, allyship by an organization’s senior leaders has become essential. In this article we’ll describe evidence-based best practices for becoming an ally, drawing on our decades of work studying how women, people of color, and women of color advance in the workplace. (Note that many people are members of two or more marginalized groups. As other scholars have shown, it’s important to acknowledge intersectional identities and how women of color are specifically diminished within these groups.)
While our advice is addressed largely to white men in the United States, we believe it can be used by members of any privileged group who want to create inclusive organizations. Our hope is that the growing attention to systemic U.S. racism and sexism will lead to a global movement toward workplace equality.
Change starts with individual leaders’ taking responsibility for their own attitudes and behaviors. There are a number of ways to do this.
Do your homework. It can be tempting to simply ask women, people of color, and women of color about their experiences with inequality and injustice. But that unfairly burdens them with emotional and cognitive labor. An ally takes the time to read, listen, watch, and deepen understanding first. White leaders at U.S. companies, for example, should not only study the country’s history of systemic racism and the struggles people of color face but also consider how their own behaviors have perpetuated discrimination.
When you do talk to others about the obstacles they’ve faced, start by requesting their permission. If it’s granted, approach with humility and a learning mindset. Good questions include:
I’m curious about the things women/people of color/women of color in this organization find most challenging day-to-day—things that I might not notice. Would you feel comfortable sharing some of what you encounter?
If there was one thing you wish your white male colleagues would do more of to improve the experience of women/people of color/women of color, what would it be?
If there was one thing we could stop doing every day, what would it be?
If you were giving me advice on how to really show up as a colleague to make the workplace fair and welcoming, what would you say?
Recognize that members of an underrepresented group won’t all have the same experiences—especially if they’re from different cohorts. For example, white women’s experiences aren’t necessarily similar to those of women of color, who, all our research shows, are particularly marginalized and silenced in organizations. Don’t generalize from the stories of one or two colleagues. Talk to many and be attuned to their unique experiences and intersectional identities.
Women and people of color are often the “only” in the room, a scenario that can spur outsider and impostor feelings.
Don’t rely too heavily on your own experiences, either. For example, a white male program director at Lockheed Martin had an aha moment when he told a Black woman to bring “a little swagger and attitude” to a client pitch. She quickly responded, “I can’t do that,” and she was right: She couldn’t act the way he could as a white man. Allies need that level of awareness.
Finally, pay vigilant attention to how women, people of color, and women of color experience meetings and other gatherings, and stay alert to inequities and disparities. Transform your perspective as a leader. As one male executive in the global development sector reflected, “Once you put on that lens, you can’t take it off. The world never looks the same.”
Own your privilege.
Being an ally requires recognizing the advantages, opportunities, resources, and power you’ve automatically been accorded as a white man while others have been overtly or subtly denied them. This can be painful because it often means admitting that you haven’t entirely earned your success. But it’s necessary. It’s also important to understand that privilege is a resource that can be deployed for good.
As a white male law firm executive explained to David and Brad, “Think about the last time you made a career decision. As a man, you were probably never asked, ‘How does this decision affect your wife or kids?’ or ‘Why are you focusing on your career instead of your family?’ That would seem like a weird conversation even in the 21st century. Not so much for women.”
White men are also far less likely to have to code-switch—adjust their style of speech, appearance, and behavior to fit into a particular culture and increase their chances of being hired, accepted, or promoted. This is extra work that takes an emotional toll. As one Black professional told Courtney McCluney in her research on this topic, “I find myself constantly trying to be aware of my mannerisms to ensure that I don’t portray myself or the people I represent in a negative light.”
Deliberately seek feedback from marginalized groups, but recognize the power dynamics at play. If women of color, for example, are asked to give advice to white male colleagues when they themselves are not in secure positions (partner, tenured professor, and so on), the request may inadvertently add invisible labor and stress—what Tsedale calls an inclusion tax.