In Canada, the concept of allyship has emerged as a pivotal strategy for firms striving to meet their Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) goals. However, despite its ascent to buzzword status, allyship – and particularly “good allyship” – remains widely misinterpreted. This uncertainty prompts important inquiries: What does genuine allyship look like in the workplace? And are all allies the same, or is there a spectrum in the quality and impact of their support?

In a new study, Not all allies are created equal: An intersectional examination of relational allyship for women of color at work, Barnini Bhattacharyya, assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour at Ivey Business School, and her collaborators Samantha E. Erskine (University of Massachusetts) and Courtney McCluney (EquiWell Partners), confront these questions by diving into the power dynamics of allyship as it relates to women of colour in the workplace. By conducting interviews with 30 Black and Asian women executives and their nominated allies in Vancouver, Bhattacharyya and her team reveal novel insights into the complexities of allyship, notably highlighting the influential role women of colour play as allies themselves.

In an interview with Impact, Bhattacharyya unveils pivotal insights from her study and shares strategies for companies to employ to avoid performative allyship and create inclusive and empowering spaces for marginalized individuals and their allies.

Your research outlines two distinct power dynamics within allied relationships. Can you elaborate on each?

What’s powerful about allyship is that there is the possibility of creating systemic change through individual action. However, our research finds that the extent to which this possibility is actualized is based on how power is perceived and framed in an allied relationship. We identify two such “power schemata”, or two different worldviews about power.

The first power schema refers to a fixed and rigid perception of power, whereby allies are framed as more powerful actors who bestow help, and beneficiaries of allyship are framed as powerless subjects who need help. As such, allies typically determine what allyship is without accounting for beneficiary perspectives. This power dynamic reinforces power differences in the allied relationship, as well as society more broadly.

The second power schema refers to a relative and co-constructed perception of power, such that allies and beneficiaries become partners in developing shared meanings of allyship and challenging unequal power systems (e.g. sexism and patriarchy benefitting men and harming women). This power schema also helps allies leverage their own relative power in creating change. As such, beneficiaries are viewed as sources of valuable knowledge in determining what allyship is effective and what change is necessary.

In sum, our research finds that power-attentiveness is crucial to being a good ally. Power neutral or inattentive actions, even if well-meaning, can be unhelpful or even harmful in some cases. Case in point, posting black squares on social media, which makes us feel good because we supported the BLM movement, without knowing that those posts prevented activists from keeping track of what was going on the ground during protests, ways to warn each other, etc. 

How has this changed the way we now define allyship?

Allyship has previously been defined as supportive behaviors enacted by dominant group members (e.g. white employees) on behalf of marginalized groups or group members (e.g. Black employees). In contrast, our research finds that effective allyship is ongoing, power-cognizant, action-oriented, beneficiary-centered, and built on solidarity with beneficiaries to dismantle unequal power systems.

We also find that over one-third of the allies in our data (as selected by women of color beneficiaries) are other women of color, fundamentally challenging current notions of who is considered an ally. Women of color thus play a crucial role in changing unequal power systems as allies themselves, contrary to prior assumptions which paint them as mere recipients of allyship.

What are the three dimensions of allyship?

Allyship entails a delicate balance between making space for the other person and speaking up when necessary. We identified three dimensions of allyship that help with this, all which must occur in conjunction for truly effective allyship:

  1. Centering: Prioritizing and centering beneficiary's perspectives and needs, instead of one’s own, on what is good allyship or what the beneficiary may need
  2. Respecting: Treating the beneficiary as a whole person, who is equal to the ally, instead of a powerless individual who needs help
  3. Action: Focusing on tangible action that can create tangible, positive impact for the beneficiary, such as calling out mistreatment as and when it occurs, instead of mere good intentions

What steps can firms employ to foster better allied relationships?

We encourage organizations to customize their allyship training programs to focus on identifying ineffective allyship and how to become more effective allies. This may involve training in emotional regulation and psychological safety, such that allies are better equipped to regulate their own fears and emotions.

Because we find ongoing learning to be the key to moving toward effective allyship, we also encourage allyship training to be consistent, ongoing, and oriented toward self-reflection and perspective-taking. Allies must undertake ongoing learning to better understand their role in creating inclusive workplaces and strategically using their power toward this reality.

Further, dominant allies, particularly those who hold significant organizational and social power, must not only publicly advocate for marginalized groups, but also challenge hierarchical differences in their relationships and realize how maintaining (or even ignoring) these hierarchies further marginalizes their beneficiaries. This approach, versus one-off training, will engender tangible change.

Our findings also offer food for thought for mentors, sponsors, coaches, and managers on how to better support employees. For example, what behaviors do marginalized employees expect from their coaches? How might assumptions about social identities affect the way managers support their employees? What can motivate managers to leverage their power in support of employees?

What can individuals do to avoid performative allyship?

To avoid performative allyship, individuals must work toward developing a power-cognizant view of allyship. This entails “ongoing learning,” which we define as openness and commitment to gaining understanding of unequal power systems through reflecting on one’s privilege and/or marginalization within those systems. This also requires learning to understand beneficiary perspectives, getting comfortable receiving feedback from them, and openness to making mistakes as well as learning from those mistakes.

Your study is based in Canada, but do you believe these findings have universal applicability?

We strongly believe that these findings have universal applicability because societies and workplaces across the world have social hierarchies and intrinsic power differences, which harm certain groups of people and privilege others. Across contexts, individuals with relatively high power have the potential to engage in allyship to create positive change for those who are harmed by these systems. They can also engage in allyship to make these systems more equitable. Allyship can also help forge solidarity across individuals who are marginalized in different ways and be allies to each other, allowing them to be central in their liberation.

How did your own diverse racialized experiences impact this study?

My own experiences as an Indian woman and immigrant-settler in Canada, alongside the varied identities of my co-authors, strongly influenced this study. Due to my unique lived experience as a racialized and immigrant woman studying and working in Canada, as well as being an EDI scholar, I hold a distinctive and unique standpoint vis-à-vis allyship. By being allies to other women of colour, as well as receiving allyship, I was able to leverage my lived experience and expert knowledge to develop this research. It allowed me to reflect on my own experiences with and interpretations of allyship at work, which sharpened our analysis.

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  • Barnini Bhattacharyya
  • Critical issues
  • Women's Leadership
  • Women in Business
  • Evolution of work
  • Research
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