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Workplace Culture and Allyship

Dianndra Roberts discusses the concept of allyship and how to effectively be an ally within workplace culture.

Published onMay 11, 2022
Workplace Culture and Allyship

Workplaces have an array of cultures, creeds, and identities of individuals in the same space. The variety can be a first for some, which can ultimately impact the atmosphere. Since the pandemic, where many have been working from home, there have been wider and more open discussions on toxic workplace cultures and what that means for those in marginalised communities. Marginalised folks, like myself, often find themselves doing a balancing act of how much of themselves they can authentically present in the workplace whilst trying to maintain a level of safety. We need to look deeper into the impact of workplace culture—good and bad—and we also need to look at what we can do as individuals to better support one another.

Statistics show nearly 49% of ethnic minority staff in the United Kingdom feel they must hide aspects of their identity in the workplace. If you are based in the United Kingdom, chances are some of your colleagues are within that percentage—I have been in that percentage. Stonewall reports that 35% of LGBT employees in the United Kingdom have hidden their sexuality at work for fear of discrimination and US statistics indicate only 17.9% of people with disabilities were employed in 2020.

Allyship, by definition, is to actively support the rights of a minority or marginalised group without being a member of it. What does that really mean? It means building relationships that have a foundation of trust and support, as well as uplifting and amplifying the needs and voices of marginalised communities in the spaces you share. To keep up the momentum of allyship, accountability and consistency are key to ensuring change and evaluation are routinely happening. This is not a ‘one and done’ or tick-box process, it’s about humanity and ensuring we are meeting needs so that everyone truly has the same opportunities and levels of wellbeing.

We need to utilise allyship to reaffirm the boundaries of those who need supportive and inclusive environments to be able to bring the best and most authentic versions of themselves to work. Building relationships with our colleagues, team support, line managers, and direct reports is fundamental for a productive and balanced workforce. Statistics show that diversity in the workplace has many benefits for work culture. High ethnic diversity on the executive team increases the likelihood of superior profitability by 33%; similarly, organizations are 21% more likely to be highly profitable with a higher relative proportion of women at the top table. Ultimately, we will all benefit from a supportive and inclusive workplace culture, but we need to consider those who are marginalised and often overlooked.

Everyone has a space where their voice is prioritized, and we need to use that in support of others because it will be beneficial in the long run. ‘Checking your privilege’ has become more discussed in society and white privilege has been spoken of more in the past few years. White privilege is not to say you have not faced hardships, but your race has not been a barrier. Any area of your life that you have not had to worry about day-to-day is a privilege; forms include ability, heteronormativity, education, class, wealth, geography, and more. This can be an uncomfortable topic for people to discuss or come to terms with, but we need to be uncomfortable to then become comfortable with the platforms we have so that we can use them to help others.

Bias is a prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair. The terms conscious and unconscious bias have become more prevalent in the past few years, with unconscious bias being the most common form of bias in the workplace. This is often considered a wider factor in understanding why people do not feel they can be themselves in these surroundings for fear of being discriminated against.

Unconscious biases are usually an internal exercise of trying to place people into boxes based on our perceptions or social stereotypes of that community. This is usually harmful to those we might be projecting on, who are likely already marginalised or excluded, and to us. Microaggressions—a term first coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s—can be directed at members of any marginalised group, including LGBTQIA+, women, and people with disabilities.

Microaggressions—the prefix refers to the act occurring at the individual level, not its impact or importance—are broken down into three categories: micro-assaults, micro-insults, and micro-invalidations. Micro-assaults are the more obvious and deliberate discriminatory behaviours, such as telling a racist joke or a security guard deliberately following a Black customer. Micro-insults and micro-invalidations, on the other hand, tend to be unconscious, unintentional, and less obvious; well-intentioned perpetrators of micro-insults often believe they’re being complimentary, for example telling a person of colour they are well-spoken or articulate, as if that is surprising due to their ethnicity.

It is important to note that we all have unconscious biases and that doesn’t make us bad people, but we can all be better by listening, learning, and having the uncomfortable conversations to take our biases from unconscious to acknowledged. There is no end point to being an ally or learning from unconscious biases. It is a continual work in progress to ensure we are creating the best culture and environment.

Intersectionality is an important tool to use and is a reminder to be inclusive and understand that experiences are different for everyone, and that parts of a person’s identity could be subject to bias in overlapping ways. It is also a reminder that we cannot police whether or not someone is facing a bias when we are not living in their experience.

Allyship is an everyday activity. It will be tiring and there will be moments where you don’t feel comfortable, but that is only a fraction of what those going through the daily experience of marginalisation feel. It is important to keep going and to get up even if you fall. There is no such thing as the perfect ally and there are some who will not even try for fear of backlash. However, it is far better to try, and learn from your mistakes, than to never try at all. Fear is what causes the continued toxicity, and it is by doing and learning that we break this down and see positive change. That being said, it is not for those with lived experiences to teach us everything, we must be proactive in our own education.

If you can advocate for someone else to be active in decision-making or to have a voice at the table—not just a seat—then do it. Use your platform to amplify the voices and needs of the marginalised; there is enough room for everyone to succeed. If I am asked to work on a project, but I know there is someone else with valuable experience who would not have been asked or consulted, I will open the door whenever I can. I hope to hold the proverbial door open for as long as I can so more people can go through and then they can hold it open for others, and the cycle will continue.

We cannot speak about what we don’t know and the best way to understand is from those who are living the experience. Listening and learning are the keys to allyship, which can be used in all communities. There also need to for reforms and evaluation at an institutional level: aiming for diversity at all levels; reviewing policies and practices to analyse unintentional barriers; establishing audit boards and committees; and using inclusive language and removing terms like “hard to reach” from workplace rhetoric. Ultimately, the aim is to create a process to check that the current practices are fit for purpose, make sense, and are conducive to a positive culture.

We need to do more to create environments where people can authentically be themselves and thrive. As a working-class Black woman with chronic illness navigating the world, I can admit that I have shaped myself into a more palatable version for places in which I have worked or environments I had to be in (looking at you, education system). I have shrunk myself and not disclosed ongoing health matters to be an “easier” or “better” version for the workplace, but the best version of myself is the most authentic version of myself. There are enough negative stereotypes aimed at women, let alone Black women, that you move through environments not wanting to rock the boat. What isn’t discussed is how exhausting and unsustainable this is. Ensuring workplaces are fit for all—in mental, emotional, and physical dimensions, to allow people to be who they wholly are—requires taking proactive steps to do something. Everything needs to be an intentional action for positive change.

Disclosure Statement

DR is the co-Chair of the ISMTE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory Council and the Society for Scholarly Publishing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Associate Editor.

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