As it’s LGBT Pride Month, I thought it might be interesting to talk about allies. Of course, this discussion doesn’t just apply to LGBTQ+ community, it’s relevant for all aspects of diversity and inclusion – be that gender parity, sexuality, ethnicity, physical (dis)ability, mental health or any other part of society who may not have achieved equality in all aspects of everyday life. Here’s a few questions I’ve been asked, and how I chose to answer them.
So who needs allies?
Across society, there is varying degrees of disparity and inequality. Not everyone has the same opportunities in life, and certain sections of society face greater challenges – gender pay gap, BAME employment opportunities, underemployment for those with disabilities, 1 in 8 transgender employees assaulted by colleagues. Whilst progress has been made, there is still much work to be done. For every part of society facing inequality, allies can and do make a difference.
So what’s the difference between equality and diversity?
According to the TUC: “Equality is about ensuring everybody has an equal opportunity, and is not treated differently or discriminated against because of their characteristics. Diversity is about taking account of the differences between people and groups of people, and placing a positive value on those differences.”
So it’s better to have a diverse bunch of people that reflect society at large?
Yes, this creates new ideas by bringing different perspectives, and ultimately creates a more engaging society, workplace, family unit, etc. By being inclusive, it means that we listen to, value and respect the views and input from all groups, paying attention to those who may not historically have been given a voice. Those who may not have been represented rely on the support of allies to drive forward equality.
So, what is an ally, and why do they matter?
Simply put, an ally is an umbrella term for someone who is proud to support equality. That person might be an ally of a particular group (LGBTQ+, women’s’ rights, etc), but fundamentally, an ally shows empathy for those who are different from themselves. The motivations may be personal (family, friends, personal circumstance) or purely altruistic (a sense of injustice in society), but an ally is always a powerful support on the inside to help achieve equality. Allies are one of the most powerful ways in which to connect with the majority, through engaging, informing and educating them, influencing opinion and creating positive change. It occurred to me not long after I took the co-chair role of Mercer’s LGBTQ+ network, Pride, that only half the job is about ensuring that LGBTQ+ colleagues feel fairly represented – the other half of the role is about engaging allies and ensuring that non-LGBTQ+ colleagues feel included (and not marginalised)!
What is an “office ally”? What if people think I’m LGBTQ+, rather than an ally?
Many business will encourage colleagues to show support – rainbow flag and lanyards, ally badges and pins and celebration of LGBTQ+ events throughout the year. It’s great to see the broad support around a business when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights – but in many offices, the topic is more complex. I’ve heard the term “office ally” mentioned, meaning that people openly show support in the office, but conceal any rainbow flags or ally badges when traveling home. Does it make someone less of an ally if they don’t want to be mistaken as LGBTQ+? In my opinion, no!
People will always draw conclusions based on what they see or hear, but making assumptions or judging others is not fair or right – see my previous post on judging others. So it is understandable that someone who is a caring ally might not want to be mistaken for being LGBTQ+. Instead of criticising our supporters, we need to continue the efforts to improve equality so that it truly doesn’t matter, wherever, whatever or whoever you are! I will always be grateful for the support of allies, whether in the office, down the pub or in the street.
OK, so allies are invaluable assets – how do I get more allies?
Inclusion is key – sometimes equality can be off-putting, especially in the UK where political correctness can often leave people feeling like they are on the outside. Likewise, feeling uncomfortable to ask how to address someone, or how to frame a question that might come across as uncomfortable / rude / too personal is another barrier. It’s why the onus is on those of us from within to be open, supportive (and forgiving!) of errors. Education is also key, helping the majority understand how we want to be treated. For example, we are rolling out “Coming out as trans*” guides in various countries across Mercer to help people better understand how it feels to come out as trans*, plus provide practical advice for colleagues and managers, as well as the affected employee on how to be supportive during the transition.
When barriers such as awareness, understanding, language and visibility are overcome, those who may have been considered “passive” allies are much more likely to engage and become more “active” allies. It’s a journey, but one that for most of us, looking back 5, 10 or 20 years, we have made such progress – inspiring us to move forward to the day when true equality is achieved. Till then, take time this month to thank our allies for their support, together we will continue to make a difference!