How to be an ally

Following on from the publication of the #WDP36 list two weeks ago, some men have asked what they can do to support women around them and increase the representation of women in leadership positions.

Old rich white men dominate drowning prevention. Young black people dominate the drowning fatalities. If the drowning prevention community wants to achieve a significant global reduction in drowning, then the community needs to be more inclusive and more diverse. It needs to listen to voices from different countries, diverse backgrounds, different genders, and different experiences.

The fact that people are asking how they can support that is testament to their commitment to improve diversity. The question is what that commitment should look like. Let’s start by defining the problem:

Think about the positions that you hold on committees, in working groups and in leadership positions. In many cases, you have that position of power or responsibility because you were in the right place at the right time. Maybe someone who knows you and thought you would do a good job put you forward for the role. After all, it’s not what you know but who you know? That’s the problem – not everyone knows the right people so then what happens? They never get a chance at that position you hold. It’s important to understand that your status as a man and particularly as a white man gives you access to certain opportunities that women and people of colour may not get. That is not to say that you are not a suitable candidate for those roles, but you are not the only suitable candidate. Other suitable candidates never get the opportunity to take on those roles because they are not in the right place at the right time because they don’t know the right people.

Diversity needs active supporters, allies if you will and a large part of that role is recognising how opportunities can be shared to a more diverse group of people.

Here are five steps to becoming an ally, whether to women, people of colour or other groups underrepresented in leadership.

  1. Realise that you are not the right person for every one of the opportunities presented to you and that you should pass opportunities onto other people if you are not the right person to use them.
    When you are offered an opportunity, be critical about whether you have the skills required for the task. Think about women or people of colour that may be better suited to that role. Nominate them. Be the person who puts new names forward. Do not be tempted to represent people or situations that you do not understand. Realise that you do not understand the context and the background to every situation.
  2. Even when you are the right person for an opportunity, find ways to involve women and people of colour who can also benefit from those opportunities.
    Make use of your positions of power and privilege to involve diverse groups of people in your work. If you are setting up a new working group or leading a new project, seek out new people who could benefit from involvement in that piece of work. Find the people who can bring a different viewpoint to the table. Do not include them as a token gesture. Make sure they are actively involved and heard. It will take work and effort on your part to use those new voices and experiences in a constructive way and including them probably requires a change to your current recruitment processes.
  3. In collaborative work, give full credit to whoever did do the legwork, internally and more importantly externally.
    When working in a group, be honest with yourself about your contribution and that of others. The brain plays tricks on us and humans tend to remember their own contributions to a piece of work better than they remember other people’s contributions. Where possible, record who does what to avoid this. When presenting work, be totally open about what parts of the work you did and didn’t do. Often, when direct credit for work is not given, the credit will be attributed to a white man. When the work that a person does disappears into the collective work done by a wider group, they never get the recognition they deserve for the role they played. Often the person at the top of an organisation gets given the bulk of the credit for the organisation’s success. This means that the hardworking individuals further down the hierarchy are unrecognised and unattributed. Highlight the work done by women and people of colour. Use people’s names. Be specific. When they are given the recognition they deserve, they are considered for new opportunities, which allows a new perspective to be included in the conversation, which widens the pool of prospective collaborators. Showing off the positive contribution that women and people of colour have to your organisation not only helps them but is also beneficial for your organisation.
  4. Use your position of power to push for diversity: involve women and people of colour in the things you do, suggest women and people of colour for roles, refuse to take part in activities that involve no women and people of colour.
    The positions of power that you hold put you inside the system, so influence the system from within. Actively recruit people of colour and women into your team. Use your position of leadership to recommend promotion for people of colour and women. Whenever you think of a white man who could take on a role, think again about women and people of colour who could also do it. They might require a little more training and support because they have not had access to the same networks, but the effort is worth it.
  5. Challenge other people when you hear them being discriminatory or benefiting from structural discrimination.
    Say something. When you hear discriminatory views being aired, call the speaker out on their comments. Correct them. It might feel uncomfortable, but it is significantly more uncomfortable for the people who have been discriminated against for most of human history. Your few minutes of discomfort are worth the effort. Take the hit.

Being an ally is not a passive role. It’s hard work and there will be times when you get it wrong. That’s ok. You will make mistakes. Take a deep breath, apologise, learn from your mistake and move forward. The fight for diversity needs allies. If you want to make a difference, put the time and effort into being the best ally that you can be.

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