Tackling the Allyship Gap at Work

To be an effective ally, educate yourself, take guidance, and don’t give up when pressure mounts.

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In recent years, calls have increased for people to be better allies to coworkers who are members of marginalized groups. Millions of people believe they have heeded those calls. In a LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey survey conducted in June 2020 — as protests over police killings of unarmed Black people were sweeping across the country — more than 80% of White people said they see themselves as allies to people of other races and ethnicities.

But people who are supposed to be on the receiving end of such support often see things differently. Of Black women respondents to the survey, only 45% said they have strong allies at work, and only 26% said they believe Black women have strong allies at work in general.

New research from McKinsey and Lean In sheds light on why this allyship gap persists. The survey found a disconnect between what women of color say are the most meaningful actions of allies and the actions that White people prioritize. For example, White employees believe that speaking out when they see discrimination is the most meaningful step. But women of color, especially Black women, say the most meaningful step is to advocate for new opportunities for them.

Similarly, a 2019 survey found that 77% of men believed they were doing all they could to support gender equality at work, while only 41% of women agreed. LGBTQ+ activists have also long noted that well-meaning allies often don’t understand what they should and should not do, including at work.

As a White woman who spent years as a corporate change leader in the field of energy and then left to create an organization focused on diversity and inclusion in the sector, I have experienced both sides of this. I have sought out allies to help stand against sexism and all forms of bigotry. I’ve also sought to be the best ally I can be to people of color. Through this combination of experiences, I’ve come to see how employees can become more effective allies.

1. Learn how prejudice manifests. Allyship must begin with learning about all the impediments a group of people runs into. For example, the McKinsey/Lean In study found that women of color were experiencing just as many microaggressions at work as they had two years earlier.

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