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Recruiter: "What does equality and diversity mean to you?" Applicant: “Diversity is lots of variety and equality is everyone being the same, right?"

good work, LGBT, equality,

This would be a natural response for many and a question that is routinely asked during recruitment processes. Many people feel unequipped to answer the question and don't understand why it would mean anything to them as individuals. We need new ways to answer this question. One way is becoming an ally.

What does it mean to be an ally?

Equality, diversity and other change mindsets such as sustainability seek to change systems and behaviours. They often fail. This is because there is a failure to connect with, directly engage with, and respond to the issues faced by those people who are disadvantaged by the implications of behaviours and systems that uphold the status quo. They also require building a sense of individual and collective responsibility across an organisation. 

One way to build such a sense of responsibility is to step into the role of being an ally. Ally work means that we all have a role in supporting colleagues to progress, as well as in challenging the ceilings, glass or otherwise, that exist as barriers to success. At its simplest being an ally is about acknowledging that opportunity and access to resources are unequally distributed and taking action to do something about it.

One simple example is to ‘call out’ observed behaviours  or language that is sexist, racist, homophobic, or ableist when it might simply be easier to let it slide. This can be difficult, particuarly for men who may not see it as 'their place' to do so as this piece published by the Harvard Business Review outlines.

Though at times sometimes challenging, allies play a crucial role in challenging the existence of these barriers themselves and should work with people who experience them - hence becoming an ally and supporter of their cause. As such, being an ally is a leadership behaviour that is modelled and ripples across an organisation.

However, too often, instead of becoming a set of behaviours that everyone adopts, equality and diversity is either not practiced beyond lip service or becomes “someone else’s” job.

This is where we enter an environment dominated by perceptions of ‘jobworthiness’ and political correctness, grinding down energy and appetite for change even in the most inclusive workplaces. Lots of people will know for instance that colleague that ‘bangs the drum’ for inclusion and diversity. Banging the drum can be exhausting. Our advice is to engage with that person so that their voice doesn't become isolated and that the work gets shared  – they probably don’t enjoy having to make a loud noise about issues. More than anything, empathy can be untapped by discussing why issues such as disability access, gender neutral toilets or unconscious bias in the workplace might be important to them.

This forms an important part of a new narrative, not just about leadership but also citizenship. Here at the RSA, through programmes such as the Citizens’ Economic Council, we have developed great insight into the role of the active citizen – as opposed, perhaps to the role of the passive consumer, or indeed, the role of the passive employee. Citizenship is, as our colleague Tony Greenham has written, a state of mind that promotes a person’s sense of ownership and agency over the system. Active citizenship in the workplace means promoting empathy, understanding and reflection of common goals and interests above and beyond the meeting of individual objectives or drive to meet targets unquestioningly. It contributes to a stronger sense of workplace identity, an improved culture and a higher performing business. A win/win/win all round – for employer, employee-citizen and society.

Responding to a rapidly changing society

Time is not on the side of complacent employers. With ‘Generation Z’ (composed of those born between 1995 and 2010) settling in and consolidating themselves in the labour market, ally work is an essential and necessary part of creating workplace culture that this cohort can thrive in. Peer-mentoring and coaching for underrepresented groups as well as listening techniques can help people explore in an honest way privilege and power as it plays out.

Indeed, the new generation of employees entering the labour market are far more critical and demanding for changes to hierarchies in work. As the RSA made clear in its  written submission to the BEIS inquiry on corporate governance earlier this year, the lack of diversity at the board level of our most influential charities and businesses demands bolder efforts to increase the representation of a wider range of stakeholders in the way businesses engage with its stakeholders, including diverse citizens (who are themselves not a ‘homogeneous mass’). We believe that this isn’t just about box-ticking, this is about holding true to a social contract and being reflective of the society businesses and other organisations serve.

Again the Harvard Business Review recently explored this in a piece ‘Why you need to listen more and talk less’. It argues that the role of managers is coming under increased scrutiny with employees increasingly wanting to work with managers rather than just for them; helping to level out hierarchy and create more inclusive atmospheres. The evidence cited also looks at changes in social attitudes of young people - who would more readily accept a job that pays worse but is more aligned more with their personal values.

This coincides with a huge shift in attitudes towards race, gender, socio-economic difference, disability and sexual orientation in this cohort. The British Social Attitudes survey this year reported that record proportions of people are now comfortable with same-sex relationships, pre-marital sex and abortion, among other social issues. Whilst younger people were reported by the survey to be more liberal on these subjects than older people, the difference was narrowing.

Other barriers are also being confronted. Stigma that once barred people living with HIV, learning disabilities, autism and mental health illness from access to employment are breaking down. Helpfully we also know that diverse groups make better decisions. A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.

Whilst equality and diversity remains an important change mindset for lots of employers; displaying leadership that retains, supports and develops diverse and inclusive workplaces remains an critical mission. Being an ally means being a leader that understands inequality affects everyone at work and publicly taking a stand to combat it.

Examples of being an ally in action

We thought that some of the following are great examples of what being an ally means in action:

PFLAG in the U.S.A

  • PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in the USA is an organisation that was founded in 1972 with the simple act of a mother supporting her gay son. Its explicit mission is to unite LGBTQ people with families, friends and allies. PFLAG offer information, advice and guidance to friends and supporters of LGBTQI people who need it; and run a scholarship and advocacy programme supporting allies to speak up for progressive change and inclusion. PFLAG and other similar organisations have contributed enormously in building the case for a more equal society and inclusive environment through empowering allies to speak up.

A great, similar (albeit less historical) programme is the Stonewall ally programme in the UK.

‘I’ll Ride With You’ in Sydney, 2014

  • #I’llridewithyou became an internet sensation after the tragic terrorist events sparked reactions from Muslims who feared being singled-out for wearing religious dress in public. Those who wanted to lend support to them offered to ‘ride with them’ as a way of offering support to them so they feel safe travelling on their own. This about people who exercise relative privilege in society offering up their support to those whose religion would open them up to harassment or physical intimidation.

Mentoring scheme for women to get into politics (Fabian Women’s Network)

  • A mentoring scheme (run by RSA fellow Christine Megson) seeks to empower women to access politics and public life through peer-to-peer networking and mentoring. This programme is another great example of ally-ship in action – see this Guardian article showcasing the initiative. Through this programme, senior leaders and MPs act as allies for women at all stages in their lives and at different stages in their careers to take up roles in either politics, public policy or public life. But allyship in this scheme is not restricted to the one-way mentoring relationship between ‘ally’ and ‘aspiring woman’; but also recognises that ‘allyship’ is a role that we can all play towards each other. As ‘aspiring women’, those women can also act as allies to others.

These of course aren’t the only examples of groups of organisations support allies in action, but are the examples that we were most struck by – we’d love to hear from you in the comments box below about examples that you felt were worth shouting about.

In association with PROUD FT, the Financial Times today launched a Executive Diversity Special Report (paywall) into LGBT inclusion in the workplace. Reema Patel will be represented on a panel that reflects on its findings later today.

Follow the authors on Twitter




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