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How to be an effective ally for women at work

As the clock ticked into 2023, women in the workplace hit an important milestone. For the first time in history, women CEOs were at the helm of more than 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies – an improvement over last year’s stats by the slightest of margins.

But however groundbreaking the news, that means about 90 percent of those CEOs are still exactly who you’d expect. And those usual voices – especially when in positions of power – can at times drown out those of the underrepresented.

"Given that so many of the rooms where big decisions are made are still majority men, it’s vital that men [act as] allies for women and marginalized groups," says Olivia DeRamus, founder of the social networking app Communia.

And research shows that having allies in the conference room – online or in person – boosts women’s confidence, enthusiasm for work and provides a sense of inclusion.

Allyship, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is supportive association with another person or group. "It’s a highly politicized topic with a lot of nuance," says Josh Miller, mental health professional, inclusive-culture specialist and co-owner of the Empathy Paradigm. "But since empathy is at the core of allyship, that’s a good place to start."

This empathy Miller talks about is essentially waking up to the fact that everyone experiences the world around them differently. It requires non-judgement, vulnerability and curiosity, he says, all of which help us gain the necessary information for truly understanding others.

Empathy becomes allyship when it’s combined with action, according to Miller. But he’s quick to admit it can be difficult to apply sweeping rules and guidelines for every situation.

"Different scenarios call for different iterations of empathy and allyship," he says. "Each workplace is unique, where certain approaches may not apply to everyone."

He would offer different approaches to, say, a person of color in a predominantly white workplace or to an entry-level employee versus an executive board member. "But generally speaking, I would say the best way for men to be allies for women is through empathy, education and action," Miller says.

Here are seven ways to act as an ally for women and marginalized groups at work.

1. Declare yourself (as an ally)

"Actually saying, ‘I am an ally to women and marginalized genders’ is a good place to start," says DeRamus. After experiencing sexual assault, she was prevented from sharing her experience and speaking out about it. She created her app as a safe space for women and non-binary communities to connect.

"A lot of times, women can't really figure out who they can confide in and who they can ask for support," she says.

2. Educate yourself (to become a better ally)

As a gay man, Miller wasn’t exempted from having prejudices. "I’ve had to educate myself just like I train others," he said. "My clients were all over the spectrum of human existence. I was learning from them on a daily basis, but I also went to therapy, built relationships with people with different experiences and took online courses. It’s been many years of hard work, and there are plenty more ahead."

DeRamus suggests putting in the study time to research the marginalized experience – and not waiting for someone in that community to explain it to you.

3. Don’t assume good intent can’t cause harm

Be careful of assuming your good intentions mean you can’t inadvertently cause harm, says DeRamus. If someone approaches you about something you did that caused offense or harm, don't try to dismiss it just because it had an unintended impact.

"Everyone experiences the world around them differently," Miller says. "We can’t assume the way we feel about or understand something is the same as someone else. Those kinds of assumptions center our [own] experiences and don’t leave room for understanding."

4. Be mindful of your bias

"You’re always going to be a little bit biased, whether you want to admit that or not," DeRamus says. "Checking yourself is really a core piece of being an ally."

For example, if you’re passing over a female employee for a promotion, ask yourself why. Is it because someone else is really better for the job? Or is it that, as a woman, she might be taken less seriously?

5. Speak up against sexism

"Call out sexism when you see it," DeRamus says. Don’t wait for someone in the marginalized community to call it out for themselves. As an ally, it’s important to step in when you see something harmful, offensive or wrong happening.

6. Pass the mic

"Sometimes, being an ally is as simple as taking a step back and giving [someone else] the opportunity to speak up," DeRamus says. If you see someone being interrupted, talked over or even ignored outright, help give them an opportunity to be heard and be taken seriously.

7. React with care

If – or likely, when – a workplace situation goes awry, Miller suggests reacting with non-judgement, vulnerability and curiosity. "This might look like asking questions to understand the other perspective and being willing to admit you’ve done harm – even if you don’t understand how."

Reacting in this way de-centers our worldviews and creates space, Miller says. Empathy and curiosity help us fill that space with the information necessary for understanding others.



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