Women as Allies

In today’s workplace, allyship is a cornerstone of inclusive leadership practice.

Dr. Dnika J. Travis

As I reread the pathbreaking book Our Separate Ways by Dr. Ella Bell and Dr. Stella Nkomo, I am inspired by some central questions: How can women advocate for and make change as allies? What are the difficult, and perhaps unspoken, issues that persist and need to be surfaced?

Bell and Nkomo appeal, “The very heart and soul of a company’s productivity rest upon the relationships among its employees. Especially as women in managerial positions increase in number, they need to develop dynamic, collaborative relationships with each other. If this is no easy task among women in general, it is even harder across racial lines.”

A recent episode of black•ish surfaced these complexities. In the episode, one of the main characters, Rainbow Johnson, is part of a women’s group advocating for equality. The episode starts with her feeling connected and aligned with her fellow group members. Yet she faces a critical moment when one member suggests that her discussions of race are “distracting from the bigger issue”—women. In that moment, Rainbow declares that she does not have the privilege “to choose between being a woman and being black.”

In today’s workplace, allyship is a cornerstone of inclusive leadership practice. Catalyst’s latest inclusive leadership research defines allyship as “actively supporting people from underrepresented groups.” But what exactly does that mean for women as allies, especially with an intersectional lens? Intersectionality is a focus on the intertwining of social identities such as gender, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity, which can result in unique experiences, opportunities, and barriers.

Talking about aspects of our identities and deeply rooted inequities can be tough and uncomfortable, and require self-reflection. As Bell and Nkomo say, “We cannot change our tarnished history, but we can begin to build sturdy bridges today. . . . Yes, it takes courage, it takes reaching out, it takes forgiving, it takes listening, and it takes accepting, but it is possible.”

These conversations are essential to enhancing our capacity as women allies. It starts with recognizing that how we experience gender is not universal—our intersecting identities impact how we perceive the world and how the world perceives us.

We should also be curious, ask questions, share stories of perseverance, resilience, and thriving in the face of adversity, and actively learn from one another.

By taking the opportunity to make change by rooting out barriers, we can explore our own biases, reflect on our behaviors, and take responsibility for amplifying women’s voices.

Catalyst is a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with pioneering research, practical tools, and proven solutions to accelerate and advance women into leadership—because progress for women is progress for everyone. catalyst.org

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