Allies are an answer to the question: “how can I support (or be supported by) another group of people?” We are increasingly realizing that diversity issues are not only the concern of minority groups. Sexism doesn’t only affect women; racism, people of color; homophobia, LGBTQ individuals; and so on. The idea of allies brings everyone to the table.
As a woman in engineering, I know firsthand how engaging men can change the conversation to realize truly inclusive practices. This blog post is to help female graduate students find allies, as well as for male graduate students who want to support the women engineers around them.
Although this post was written for the gradSWE community with gender bias in mind, the resources I have included are for anyone who seeks to be a better advocate for another group. Numerous excellent guides exist on becoming a more effective ally or finding an ally for yourself. If you would like to read more, the links that I have provided at the end of this post are a great starting place.
What is an ally and why are they important?
At its most basic level, “An ally is any person who supports, empowers, or stands up for another person or a group of people” (http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/culture/cultural-competence/be-an-ally/main). Robin Hauser Reynolds, whose documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap explores the problems facing women in tech, as well as solutions, gives a more practical definition: “A male ally is a man who will advocate for women even when there are no women in the room” (https://www.progressivewomensleadership.com/the-power-of-the-male-ally-engaging-men-advancing-women/).
This definition gets to the heart of why allies matter. Allies have power in the setting that the group they are helping doesn’t have. They are often able to speak up on behalf of another group in a way that is more likely to be heard. This gives allies a special ability to affect change.
I’m seeking allies, where do I start?
If you are seeking allies, then I highly recommend these resources for more information: https://www.progressivewomensleadership.com/the-power-of-the-male-ally-engaging-men-advancing-women/, https://www.maconferenceforwomen.org/engaging-men-critical-creating-inclusive-culture/. I found a lot of good tips for seeking male allies in them. To summarize some takeaways from those articles:
- look for individuals who have empathy
- meet new people and try to engage people who are different from you
- seek out mentors who are not of your group
- assume positive intent
Finally, only cultivate a relationship with someone willing to listen and learn from you. An effective ally won’t always be a perfect advocate; however, it is critical that they listen to and support you. If this is not the case, then seek elsewhere for a new ally, as it is most important to find someone who can empower you.
How can I become an effective ally?
To me, being an effective ally means recognizing, and then acting, when we have power in a situation to advocate for a marginalized group. However, stating that an ally should act in this way is the easy part. How can we actually do this?
Over and over again, as I was reading about being an ally, the importance of listening was emphasized. It is impossible to be an effective ally if we assume we know what the group we are supporting wants without taking the time to listen to them and being willing to learn from those who are different from us. Furthermore, this isn’t something that an ally can do once. We must be willing to continually learn, so that we can truly advocate on the behalf of others who have different and complex needs.
Before being able to act as an ally, we also have to examine our motivation. If we are acting from a place of guilt or, alternatively, from a place of superiority, it is impossible to be an effective ally. We have to see ourselves as equals as those we seeking to empower and be willing to learn from them.
Along the way, we will make mistakes. Therefore, being an ally also requires being adaptable and recognizing when our well-intentioned actions are not helpful. When this happens, we can’t give up, but have to apologize and learn from our mistakes.
The value of allies is becoming increasingly recognized as more of us realize that diversity issues are not only the concern of minority groups and that developing truly inclusive academic and work environments is all of our responsibility. In this post, I focused on those who already recognize that gender bias both exists and is a problem. In later posts, I will explore more fully how we can start to engage those who don’t already believe that diversity issues affect them.
As always, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any comments or questions.
General information about being an ally. These two guides aren’t targeted towards any one group, but the explore the topic quite extensively.
Here are some guides for women seeking to engage male allies:
And here are some resources for men seeking to become effective allies for women:
This is an in-depth report of the growth and development of male allies in the workplace: