Last week was an extremely difficult one for a lot of people. It was one that has unleashed rage and fear and pain in many, particularly women, across North America, and most especially in the United States. With one decision, rights that had long been considered settled and unassailable were taken away. The consequences of that ruling have already been severe, and they are going to get worse before—and if—anything can possibly get better.
A great deal of the collective outpouring of grief and frustration was unquestionably from women, and for very good reason. There was also a persistent and underlying call: men, we need you to be in this with us. One tweet on my timeline—one of many—said: “We need more men speaking up, supporting us, and joining this fight. This won’t stop at the border.” That call wasn’t always consistent, but it certainly existed. It is necessary. The more of us who speak our minds and share our truths and stand up for our shared and collective rights, the better. This isn’t something that only affects or involves women, it touches all of us. We are all in this together.
Broadly, what is being called out for is ally-ship. Being an ally is not a new term, but it has gained prominence in recent years. But there is a curious and fundamental challenge that faces many: exactly what does this look like? How do you be an ally? How do you contribute your voice to a discussion or a cause in a way that is supportive and reinforcing? How do you use your voice to amplify the voices of others who most need to be heard?
It is vital to understand that being an ally is not solely about one issue. It is not just responding to fall-out from the collapse of Roe v. Wade, or the potential for similar spill-on efforts north of the border. Being an ally is about supporting the rights and treatment of others, particularly where there is real or perceived inequity. This can be in our civic discourse, in our personal lives, or in the board rooms and meeting spaces of our organizations. Being an effective ally is most importantly about amplifying voices that aren’t being heard or acknowledged, and advocating for important perspectives that are being minimized, ignored or suppressed.
How to be an effective ally isn’t something that we—and in particular, men—are specifically taught. As well, many of the behaviours that are perceived as being most valued in the workplace can be in marked contrast to what this should look like. Competitiveness and the perception of the workplace as a meritocracy both often result in contrary behaviours and actions. Emphasizing an orientation on problem-solving and solution-finding can counter-intuitively undermine these efforts as well. So can being unaware of privilege that exists, and the differences in status and influence of others, whether on the team, in the meeting or throughout the organization.
My own example can be a useful illustration here. I’m male. I’m tall, and sturdily built. I have a deep voice that carries. I’m used to being listened to because advising is my vocation. For the most part, despite the fact that I can intellectually acknowledge each one of these statements as objectively true, I am also often not fully aware of the impact that my presence has on others. Apparently, I can be extremely intimidating in some circumstances.
I’m also fairly used to solving problems and offering advice. That can be helpful in some situations, but it isn’t always what is needed and it isn’t always what is being sought. Gaining that particular insight was hard won, however, and took decades to truly sink in. It was relatively normal for me—whether in casual conversation, in a work context or in dealing with a partner—to listen to them explaining an experience that they were encountering or a problem they were having and offer, “Well, you should do this…” Over time, I watered that down to, “If I were in this situation, then I might…” The reality, however, is sometimes what the speaker wants is simply to be listened to and heard by someone who cares enough to do so, without actually being offered advice or given a way to fix it.
All of the behaviours that I’ve described stem in part from a tendency to value individual contributions over those of the collective. They also tend to perpetuate the status hierarchies that are in play, which while not necessarily visible are nonetheless very real, both in society and in organizational life.
Being an ally deliberately adopts a different focus. First off, it is about recognizing the inequities of status and power that exist. Secondly, it is choosing to do something about that reality.
Being an ally starts with listening and understanding. Paying attention to those around you, and genuinely trying to see situations through the lens of their perspective and experience. This knowledge needs to be built up over time, and often first requires an overall sense of trust. If, for example, you don’t feel that you understand what the experience and barriers of women are in seeking professional advancement, ask. Genuinely and sincerely. Seek out perspectives that are not your own and try to learn from them.
At the same time, be prepared to be really uncomfortable about what you hear. You may hear stories that are completely contrary to your experience of the same environment. What you view as a meritocracy might get described as closed-off, hostile, resistant and rampantly unfair. Efforts at trying to be heard may have resulted in being outright ignored, belittled, talked down to, talked over or blatantly opposed. Worse, the same words and ideas that they were attempting to communicate might quickly find themselves being offered as original by the person that just shut them down. Sadly, this is not rare or unusual. It is disturbingly normal.
You may even recognize circumstances where your own behaviours in the past have run dangerously close to what you hear described. You may call into question how you are perceived, and not wholly like the implications. Disquieting though that might be, its important to learn. It can be useful in identifying not just biases but blindspots, situations where you don’t notice how actions lead to specific consequences or you aren’t aware of how dynamics change in a conversation. Consciously trying to recognize these instances is the first step to doing something about them.
From understanding can come action. This is where things can particularly get uncomfortable. If you’re used to being decisive and solution-oriented, figuring out what to do to help in a situation that isn’t strictly about you can be hard. There is a weird and delicate balance between being a positive ally and not taking up space or making a conversation solely about you.
One incredibly useful approach to this is what is known as “amplification.” In essence, recognizing ideas as they are offered, and both calling attention to them and attributing authorship back to their source. If you are in a situation where someone is trying to contribute and is being ignored or talked over, for example, you might highlight, “I think Sarah is trying to make a relevant point here. I’d like to hear what she has to say.” Where that same idea then gets “borrowed” and reiterated, a possible response might be, “I’m fairly certain that Adriana was trying to make a similar point earlier; Adriana, did you have additional perspective around that that you wanted to contribute?”
This strategy was highlighted in a number of narratives about how women were able to get heard and respected in the Obama White House. It is an approach that consciously creates space in the room for ideas to be heard, provides reinforcement of the ideas themselves, and points acknowledgement back to the original speaker. It is a proven and effective strategy for providing support and discouraging people being undermined or ignored.
Another way to be an ally, one that responds to the tweet I quoted (“we need more men speaking up…”) is through echoing and reinforcing the statements, the concerns, the outrage with perspectives of your own. Provide reinforcement, provide examples, provide encouragement. Again, amplify what others are saying. Whatever the specific issue or problem or cause, find a way to share and support the perspectives being offered. If you can in some way build in your own examples that add to—and don’t detract from—what is being said, all the better.
Being an ally is visibly placing yourself alongside of and in support of others. In the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, for example, there have been many female voices crying out in protest, quite legitimately. If those were the only voices heard, it would be easy to frame this as an issue that only involves women. While women may be at the forefront of this response, showing up as an ally provides clear demonstration that there is much broader support and caring for what is happening and what it means.
An important thing to recognize is that being an ally is deliberately casting yourself in a supporting role to others. While your perspective may be valued and appreciated, that doesn’t mean it will always directly be called out and recognized. Allies perform their work because it matters, not because they are seeking praise. Nonetheless, there are benefits of being an ally that are not solely altruistic. Research highlights both the importance of amplifying others, and that doing so reflects positively on those who do so.
Some of the hardest work of being an ally is confronting and challenging perspectives that are expressed by others. Opening up space for people to be heard is one thing. Hearing others make statements that you disagree with and don’t support—and having the courage to speak out about them—is another thing altogether. Being willing to challenge, to counter and to offer different viewpoints is incredibly important. This is particularly true where statements go well past opinions and perspectives, and are based on lies, fabrications or outright intentions to manipulate situations and manufacture outcomes.
In my upbringing, I was socialized to not make waves and to politely smile when unpopular ideas were aired. Compliance to demands from those on high was expected, even if not fully aligned with organizational expectations, policies or values, because those were the orders and you were expected to follow through. It has taken me a long time to recognize how corrosive and wrong this is. Being willing to stand up and counter difficult and controversial opinions or refuse to comply with unreasonable or inappropriate requests is difficult. It requires courage. It is vital to actually do so.
There is a phenomenon—a cognitive bias—known as “false consensus effect.” The essence of this view is that there is an enormous tendency for people to see their beliefs and choices as being relatively common and widely held. The societal pressure to not confront objectionable ideas or outright lies when shared simply feeds this perception; because they are not being opposed, there must be general agreement. The converse is also true: pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon where people privately disapprove but publicly support what is seen as being the majority perspective. The result is perceived public support, even while there is widespread private opposition. The only way to counter either bias is to be willing to speak up, to provide honest feedback, correct facts and truthful perspective.
Being an ally is challenging work. It is scary to confront and it is difficult to do. There is a delicate balance that each of us needs to find and sustain while doing so, figuring out how to support without dominating, of being a voice in the conversation without being its centre of focus. Just because this work is tough doesn’t mean that it is unimportant, however. Some of the most critical things we accomplish in life are the things that are really hard.
When faced with situations of inequity and injustice, you don’t have to be the one with all the answers. You don’t have to be the one with all of the solutions. You don’t need to be out in front, and at times it will be very important that you aren’t. It is not always going to be your fight, but being an effective ally involves recognizing the importance of the fight, and for standing up in support of those engaging in it directly. We all can be allies. We all need to be allies. The key is knowing how to do it well, and being prepared to take action and be heard when it matters.
This is about all of us, and we all need to show up.