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How straight, white men and other privileged groups can be allies

Ultimate Software’s director of diversity, equality, and belonging explains how true allyship–creating space for people who are not like you, and then stepping back and letting them run that space–works.

How straight, white men and other privileged groups can be allies
[Photo: GeoffGoldswain/iStock]

I saw the power of allyship firsthand while fighting to legalize same-sex marriage in my home state of Maine.

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Governor John Baldacci signed marriage equality into law back in 2009, but it was repealed when opponents petitioned for a referendum and voters rejected it. That may have been due to the fact that citizens weren’t empowered to be part of the solution. They weren’t included in the discussions that led to the bill’s initial signing. When a new bill came under popular vote in 2012, the strategy changed to focus on allyship.

Hundreds of committed volunteers knocked on the doors of almost 250,000 households (about 20% of the population) in Maine. I and other volunteers had one-on-one conversations with people who voted “no” in 2009. We talked with them about the power of marriage and family in the LGBTQ+ community and linked it to issues they cared about.

The result? In 2012, 53% of voters said “yes” to marriage equality. As I watched the election returns with fellow volunteers that night, it was incredibly inspiring to see district after district, town after town, that we had lost in 2009 come out boldly in support of us. I will never forget the gratitude and the pride I felt toward my fellow Mainers that night. My wife and I carried that joy with us as we were officially married on the steps of City Hall in December, the first day the new law went into effect.

This experience was an eye-opener. It taught me that impactful change can happen when the LGTBQ+ community works with allies to change the minds of those who hold the power. This idea translates to the corporate world as companies looking to make real diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts must engage with executive allies.

What does allyship look like?

Allyship has become a controversial word amid growing conversations that grapple with the line between aid and appropriation. This is an important distinction. Allyship should never involve exploitation. True allyship means creating space for people who are not like you, and then stepping back and letting them run that space. It’s not about speaking on behalf of a group you aren’t a part of, but rather using your power to allow other voices to be heard.

It may seem counterintuitive, but D&I efforts need participation from executive leaders who are not part of a given underrepresented group. At Ultimate Software, we’ve found this works particularly well in our company-wide Communities of Interest. These employee-resource groups encourage members of underrepresented groups to discuss their experiences and what the organization can do to support them.

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But they shouldn’t have to do it alone. Vivian Maza, Ultimate’s chief culture officer, sponsors our pride community and our veterans community, despite (or, in fact, because) she is not a part of either group. Similarly, Ultimate’s founder and co-CEO Scott Scherr sponsors our Women in Leadership and Women in Technology groups. Both Viv and Scott were instrumental in establishing these groups, and each year they provide a budget and then let our employees organize and oversee the rest. True allies lend their privilege to underrepresented groups by advocating alongside them, not speaking for them.

How executives can model accountability

Lasting change must come from the top down. Executive allies can and should set the tone for the organization and use their power to hold everyone accountable—starting with themselves. Beyond a symbolic gesture about creating a more inclusive and diverse culture, it’s important that executives be active listeners and participants in any training and initiatives.

Engaging a third-party organization can help demonstrate a company’s commitment to meaningful change while holding everyone accountable. For example, organizations like Disability:IN help companies move beyond a single annual training or a D&I committee that can become siloed. They offer year-long, transformative trainings led by experts that can help companies measure success beyond checking the box. Courses focus on cultivating safe environments, recognizing and avoiding unconscious bias, and valuing differences.

Once these workshops are complete, Disability:IN offers a Disability Equality Index that enables companies to annually measure and benchmark disability inclusion. With a partnership like this, an executive ally not only ensures trainings are carried out and well-attended but that they’re also invested in outcomes, push for compliance, and find ways to return to the conversation when others think it’s “over.”

Conversations that raise awareness and challenge existing perspectives should not be limited to trainings, a designated annual update, or a particular meeting. The space for equality and belonging exists whenever a concern or update arises. A good executive ally isn’t afraid to break down the silos where these conversations are usually contained.

When in doubt, remember how far we’ve come

When I look ahead at how much remains left to do to create more equal workplaces, it’s easy to get discouraged. But one of my favorite professors of leadership, Ronald Heifetz, reminds us not to parallel solutions and progress. That is, in our quest to make things better, let’s not forget just how far we have come.

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As companies realize that embracing diversity helps organizations succeed and thrive, the business climate and job prospects for LGBTQ+ people continue to improve. In 2002, when the Human Rights Campaign released the results of the first-annual Corporate Equality Index, only 13 companies scored 100%. In 2019, that number was 571, and over 170 of those companies also signed on as sponsors of the Equality Act. Through representation and executive allyship, we are sending the elevator back down for the queer, young professionals coming in.

If we’re truly going to move the needle on workplace D&I, it’s essential to engage leaders and decision-makers—most of whom fall within more privileged groups. When we shift the mindset of the people who hold the power, we enact change in a sustainable and democratic way.

The LGBTQ+ community couldn’t enact marriage equality on its own. Not even the governor could do it alone. Real change happened when we engaged allies. Should we have had to knock on 250,000 doors in Maine to win that right? No. But that’s what it took to succeed. The same kind of real change can happen in organizations when passionate people engage with allies and shift the mindsets of those who hold the power.


Cara Pelletier is director of Diversity, Equality and Belonging at Ultimate Software.

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