Allyship and Advocacy at Work: 5 Key Questions Answered (Blog Post)
Catalyst experts address common misconceptions so you can start driving change at work.
You want to champion for racial justice and gender equity at work. But you’re feeling stuck and don’t know what to do.
We get it. In our work leading Catalyst’s efforts to engage men as gender partners and provide leaders with tools and research on equity and inclusion, we field questions every day from people asking, “How?”
Below, we address five common questions we hear about allyship and advocacy—along with concrete actions you can take right now to make change.
Allyship, noun. Actively supporting people from marginalized groups.
Advocacy, noun. Proactively taking action and building relationships within and across groups to drive positive, structural change on a systemic issue.
- I want to be a better ally at work, and I’ve also heard the word “advocate.” What’s the difference, and what can I do?
- I’ve heard about intersectionality, but I’m not sure what it means or how to incorporate it in my thinking and behavior. Can you help?
- I want to be an effective ally and avoid “performative allyship.” What do I need to watch out for?
- What challenges will I face in working to become a better advocate?
- I’m afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing.
“Allyship” and “advocacy” are often used interchangeably and share a common purpose. Yet they have distinctive meanings. Allyship means you’re doing the hard work to actively support people from marginalized groups—often those with whom you have relationships or who are in your sphere of influence. Advocacy is taking action in service of a cause, and the people it affects, to influence decision-makers and decision-making. Both are important tools in your toolbox.
For example, when a woman of color is talked over in a meeting, perhaps a moment of allyship—creating space for her to be heard—is best. Or, perhaps what is needed, in fact, is advocacy for transformed meeting dynamics that disrupt behavior in a more systemic way. Or, perhaps both are required. Ask what individuals need and what can be done to address not just the symptom but the underlying problem.
Intersectionality is an approach to examining the world through the lens of overlapping systems of power that interlock with our social identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation) to oppress and advantage people. As an ally or advocate using an intersectional framework, you have to be open to not only learning about social groups but also the interrelated policies, practices, and systems that create and perpetuate inequities, discrimination, biases, and unfair treatment. The learning is ongoing.
Intersectionality also helps you see that there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to any situation. For example, would a man benefit from mentoring and coaching to help him more effectively use his voice? Or, if that man is Black, would his enhanced assertiveness be perceived as aggression due to entrenched biases, in which case the focus might be better directed at how, and to whom, others listen?
An example of performative allyship is when an organization posts on social media about gender equity yet has a gender pay or leadership gap they are not addressing or claims to support racial equity while having no people of color on their leadership team and taking no action to remedy that.
Neither an organization nor an individual can simply declare themselves an ally just because they care. As we have written with our colleagues, Sheila Brassel, PhD, and Joy Ohm, “Saying you’re against a certain type of injustice without doing the hard work of changing your behavior or the structures that uphold it.” Ask yourself, “Am I doing this because it makes me feel good about myself, or because it looks good to others, or because it is what is really needed here?”
Advocates in dominant groups (men when advocating for gender equity, White people when advocating for racial equity) encounter hard truths as they do the work aimed at addressing issues faced by people in marginalized groups (e.g., women, people of color). As advocates, people in the dominant group need to examine their own place in what’s at stake—for example, how their lives have been affected by our current systems.
With gender equity, for example, this could mean men not only advocating for change that will benefit women but also working with other men, and across lines of gender, to advocate for cultural changes that men stand to gain from. We know from our research, for example, that it is important for men to interrupt sexism. Doing so is one way for men to be an advocate for gender equity and inclusion, to the benefit of women. At the same time, one key way men can do this is by addressing the norms and cultures that contribute to masculine anxiety; working to create environments that allow men more freedom in how they express masculinity.
Don’t let fear get in the way. You will have tough moments. You will make mistakes. One of our mentors says, “If you are not uncomfortable, then you are not learning. And if you are not learning, how you can expect anyone else to? You must model the way.”
Often, what makes the difference between a mistake that derails your allyship and advocacy from one that does not is how you respond to it. People will appreciate your humility and transparency in treating mistakes as learning opportunities. Always give yourself “a bit of grace” (advice from another mentor) when things inevitably go differently from what you expected. The goal is progress, not perfection.
Vice President, Head of Knowledge Transformation & Solution Development
Alix is Head of Knowledge Transformation & Solution Development at Catalyst. In her role, and as a leader within the R&D team, she oversees and delivers the strategic acquisition, refinement, and application of knowledge to create innovative products that address specific challenges or opportunities for Catalyst Supporters and their employees…
Dr. Dnika J. Travis, former Vice President, Research & Strategy, at Catalyst, is a recognized researcher, educator, and change leader. At Catalyst, Dnika led research initiatives and managed content creation. Her work involved building and piloting the Catalyst Inclusion Accelerator, a diagnostic and action planning tool to help companies measure…