Leadership has always been an exercise of promoting complex interactions, communicating assertively and providing guidance and empowerment for people’s success. Easier said than done, right? Nowadays, another topic of discussion among leaders is Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, as many questions arise when trying to make a statement about it. Even though it has gained momentum over the last few years thanks to activist movements and generations of people who fight for a more equal society, it’s important to realize this momentum should also be embraced as a leadership feature. Embracing an inclusive policy can take leaders to the next level of personal and professional success, especially when it comes to understanding what allyship is and why it is important to be a good ally in our society.
In a nutshell, allyship is the relationship of a person who advocates and works in solidarity for the inclusion of marginalized groups in society, even though they are not a member of those groups. First and foremost, notice how even when an individual can be part of a marginalized community or several at the same time — i.e., LGBTQ+, Black, Latinx or Neurodiverse — it’s likely most of us don’t belong to all of them. And with that, there’s a chance some people might have a more privileged position in society than others, based on their identities. A Caucasian man might have a greater privilege than a Caucasian woman in a biased society, and that woman might have a greater privilege than a Black woman, and so on. Recognizing the privilege each one of us has will allow us to be an ally for others, by using our own privilege to advocate on behalf of those who don’t have the same set of benefits. This is the main reason why all leaders should question their identities and acknowledge what privileges have allowed them to be where they are in the world.
Now that we have touched base on allyship, one of our first steps as inclusive leaders should be to ensure our work environments are safe spaces that promote learning from others’ experiences and encourage candid discussions without the fear of retaliation. This can only be achieved by practicing what we preach: leaders must move from a passive position to becoming an active advocate, by making sure respect and empathy are practiced even in the most basic of situations. Let’s suppose Kelly, a woman on the team, brings up great insight for a business plan that doesn’t generate any reaction from the people in the room. Then Ryan, a male colleague, takes that same idea and rephrases it, getting the attention it was supposed to have when Kelly brought it up — possibly because he is a man — and takes the credit for it. As a leader, the best course of action in this situation would be to emphasize with the people in the room that Kelly had a great idea and should be recognized for it. Ryan can be thanked for building upon Kelly’s insight, and, in that way, a leader creates a sense of respect and active listening among each person on the team. Leaders don’t have to take an aggressive stand to defend others, rather use it as an opportunity to learn and build awareness of everybody’s unconscious biases, or any exclusionary behavior towards a specific group of people.
“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become a reality.” – Earl Nightingale
It’s our responsibility as leaders not only to promote safe environments, but also to make them last, even after our leadership has moved on. One way to sustain this in the long run is by extending our support network and generating momentum through a larger community of allies. This includes peers who listen to us and believe our actions can transcend, and other influential leaders who can spread the word about our vision with different audiences, especially people in more senior positions, who have a greater sense of responsibility over the development of their teams’ culture, e.g. executive sponsorship. The goal is to embed a culture of inclusion within different groups, such that it becomes part of their values and a leader isn’t the main advocate to drive this reality.
It’s also possible we face obstacles when creating allyships, such as lack of empathy or even interest. Get creative with the motives to start a conversation with a more open perspective on diversity and inclusion. For example, talk about how a more diverse pool of talent enables richer discussions thanks to the co-existence of different backgrounds. Being an inclusive leader and sponsoring healthy workplaces can attract a greater number of talented candidates that will challenge other members of their teams and thrive to reach better solutions for everyone.
In the end, allyship is a journey that takes time, and leaders are the tip of the spear to move the needle forward due to their influential position. It is essential for everyone to add this topic as a priority to their agendas, taking action on a daily basis, and, more importantly, remembering that the first move is always the most difficult. Once the journey has started, we should commit to maintain it in the best possible way: keep learning, listening, understanding and supporting. As I like to think, the overall goal of diversity and inclusion is to become a better person to one another, and to experience that ‘aha!’ moment of transcendence when others are able to reflect or change their behaviors upon these interactions.
Leonel Miranda is Associate Manager, Software Development, and DE&I Forum Leader at AspenTech.