Beware Performative Allyship: 3 Signs to Look For
Last year, thousands of individuals and major companies posted empty black squares to their social media feeds. #BlackOutTuesday meant to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and raise awareness about racism and police brutality.
But some activists accused corporate participants of being performative allies. “Performative allies share their knowledge about inequity with others, but don’t use their privilege and resources to make real change,” says Xochitl Ledesma, Catalyst’s Director of Leading for Equity & Inclusion.
Performative allyship hurts the people it’s meant to support and maintains the status quo by appearing to promote change without producing change—which is inequitable and demoralizing.
If you’re a true ally, your actions match your words. New Catalyst research authored by Sheila Brassel, PhD, Joy Ohm, and Dnika J. Travis, PhD shows that allyship and curiosity should be at the heart of a leadership mindset to create a more inclusive, welcoming workplace for people of color. Brassel reflects, “Leaders must pro-actively tune in, step up, and lift up to ensure marginalized voices are heard and people of color’s experiences and contributions are fully valued. But there are pitfalls to avoid and performative allyship is on the top of the list.”
Based on our new research and her experiences working with F1000 organizations to address their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) learning needs, Ledesma shares three signs of performative allyship—and what actions to take instead.
- A lack of diversity at the top.
Many companies that published statements supporting racial equity were criticized for the lack of diversity on their own teams. “Having a more diverse board or C-suite takes time to implement. But it’s the greatest sign of commitment an organization can have,” Ledesma says. “Diverse leadership provides diverse thought and strategy to an organization. It also shows members of underrepresented and marginalized groups that they can grow and be promoted.”
Hiring or promoting diverse leaders is not enough, however. Companies must support new leadership through a culture of equity and inclusion. “The classic statement is you can invite someone to the table, but if they’re not allowed to speak or be heard, then that’s not real equity,” Ledesma says.
- The company doesn’t track or discuss metrics.
Companies should be candid about representation numbers across job levels and demographics. “Right now, there’s genuine appreciation for organizations that share low metrics when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” Ledesma says, “as long as they share what they’re doing to address it. Transparency creates accountability.”
One example of companies holding themselves accountable is the Gender and Diversity KPI Alliance (GDKA), co-chaired by Catalyst and Working Mother Media. More than 70 companies have committed to using three key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure and improve diversity.
Sharing data on women and men in your company is just the beginning. Companies must also measure intersectionality. “Just because 60% of women at your organization say they feel they have no issues being promoted doesn’t mean you have equity,” Ledesma adds. “You have to dig deeper and measure intersectional components of women, such as race or sexual orientation, to better understand the experiences of underrepresented and marginalized groups.”
Consistent data gathering is also important to measure change and progress. Use quantitative data to identify gaps in representation. Use qualitative data to measure employee experiences.
“Inclusion is a data metric that companies should not overlook,” Ledesma says. Catalyst’s inclusive leadership model identifies key behaviors and experiences for leaders and employees. Through surveys, companies can identify areas of inclusion in which they need to focus. Ask employees if they feel included by their colleagues and by their managers. Looking at different components of inclusion is essential.
- Leaders commit to creating a more equitable workplace—but don’t follow through.
Being a role model is critical because true culture change starts at the top. As a leader, if you make pronouncements about advancing gender and racial equity, but then continue to cut off women of color at meetings, or repeatedly pass over qualified employees of color for promotions, you’ll send a message that your words don’t really matter.
Changing company policy and practices also is key. Ledesma says that all leaders—whether they’re on a project, team, or division—must take the initiative and promote inclusion. To increase the diversity of new hires, she says, the company needs “to look at the language in your job posts and where you’re recruiting from. You need to review interview questions for bias and provide anti-bias training to interviewers.”
Employees, customers, and the public at large expect companies to make lasting and impactful changes, not just pronouncements, Ledesma says. “A real ally is someone who helps create those changes.”
Read more about allyship in our new report.