What does healthy allyship look like?

By Claudia Pellegrino, Oliver Davis

Closing the gender gap is not only the right thing to do, but also makes business sense. It drives creativity, ingenuity, and financial performance.

Organisations with more women in leadership positions generate a 35 percent higher return on equity than those lacking gender diversity. Despite this, it will take 136 years to close the worldwide gender gap. A lot of brilliant initiatives have emerged to recruit and retain women in the workplace. But unfortunately, they’re mostly led by women for women, who are more likely to end up responsible for invisible office work.

Beyond addressing talent management policies to close the gap, organisations should actively encourage allyship across the workforce. We’ve seen how allyship improves career opportunities for women, and learnt that gender diversity is greater in companies where allies actively support gender diversity initiatives. But good allyship is tricky to master. Research has shown that there are two prominent themes that hinder vocal advocacy: apathy and fear. Our forthcoming research on closing the gender gap in STEM has revealed that examples of ‘unhealthy allyship’ are unfortunately more common than ‘healthy allyship’. Unhealthy allyship is when the majority recognises inequality but refuses to act on it. It’s when the majority assumes what needs to be done to close the gender gap and refuses to listen and learn from the minority.

So, what does good allyship look like in practice? In our experience, allyship is a verb that can be demonstrated in three important ways:

Learn about unconscious bias

People will follow what you do, and not what you say. For allyship, this means being self-aware and setting an example. These behaviours are especially true for leaders, who have a duty to cultivate diverse spaces.

Challenge your awareness of your unconscious bias and reflect on the advantages – or lack of disadvantages – you have as a professional. Listen to understand, find ways to hear women’s stories first hand, and acknowledge that women may experience the workplace differently to you. Allies should be clear about their intent and accept they may not already know how to build diverse teams.

Once you have learnt more about unconscious bias, you can work on becoming a vocal ally, share learning, and stand up for what’s right. Recognise inequality and actively look out for microaggressions affecting under-represented people. Learning, speaking up, and calling out sexist behaviours, even in difficult situations, is pivotal to engaging others to commit to a shift in attitude.

Be visible

Take tangible actions to declare your allyship. This could include attending an event, mentoring someone, or sharing a relevant article on social media. Once you’ve started, your participation can grow. For example, taking a leading role in an organised network of like-minded individuals will provide clear, tangible opportunities to make a real difference. And visibility is crucial. It’s valuable when men contribute to organising women in tech events and learning initiatives. It shows they commit their time and efforts towards the cause.

It’s important for allies not to be shamed when they visibly join initiatives – it’s vital to allow them the space to learn and fail – feeling safe enough to ask questions and continuously learn. This will equip new allies to share their knowledge onwards too.

Advocate and promote

Speak up. Give credit where it is due, and don’t allow peers to be talked over. Amplify other views. You might want to structure meetings so that there’s time for everyone to express their perspective, rather than promote free flow conversations where members of the group could be overshadowed.

Active sponsorship is the epitome of advocacy. It presents as someone who promotes women’s progression and supports their development. As a sponsor, ensure ongoing conversations, focus your energy on celebrating women’s achievements and highlighting them to senior leadership to demonstrate how diversity in leadership makes a business better.

Finally, start to pass on opportunities to women. Affinity bias means that women or minorities aren’t offered as many opportunities as men. If you have a meeting, project, or opportunity you feel someone is qualified to perform well in, ask an under-represented peer if they’d like to take the place.

It can be difficult to embark on a vocal allyship journey, but seeking the support of networks, communities, and peers will make it easier. To delve deeper into the discussion on allyship, listen to our recent podcast episode with WeAreTech where James Edwards, Jiten Kachhela, Andrew Earnshaw, and Claudia Pellegrino discuss their perspectives on the importance of advancing allyship.

About the authors

Claudia Pellegrino PA business design expert
Oliver Davis PA agile expert

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