For the past few years, I have been beating the drum on how important “male allyship” is to real progress in closing the gender gap and accelerating the advancement of female talent. Yes, it’s been a consistent message of mine and one that I am trying to live out loud in leading Integrating Women Leaders (IWL). Over the last 12 months, I have had a few humbling experiences related to allyship causing me to pause and reflect on my own privilege and the opportunity I have to help others on their equality journeys.

Recognizing Opportunities to Act as an Ally

The first was at lunch at a downtown Indianapolis restaurant last summer with extended family members who were visiting Indianapolis from out of state. One of my relatives made a comment that was not supportive of the waiter serving us, whom my relative presumed to be gay. I asked this relative a question about his perspective on a person being gay. Both the answer and the attitude were troubling to me. I made a brief comment that I had a different perspective and made a conscious decision to wait until I had another opportunity to have a deeper 1-on-1 conversation with that outspoken and, in my opinion, uninformed family member. I wanted to share with that relative that one of our family members is gay and I know it has been a very difficult lifelong journey for that individual. Unfortunately, the window to have that 1-on-1 conversation closed. I missed the chance to serve as an ally for our gay family members during that in-person time together.

Over the past few months, I have also had other conversations related to IWL’s focus on advancing women and the opportunity we have to place greater emphasis on minority women. It has become increasingly apparent to me that even in the “women bucket,” there are different levels of privilege. As a white female, I have more of an advantage than women of color. I didn’t earn that advantage. I was just born with it.

Just a few weeks ago I was meeting with a corporate sponsor of IWL and the objective of the meeting was to discuss IWL’s work in the male allyship space. Shortly into the conversation one of the participants shared with me that they were transgender and had only come out last summer after nearly 30 years. Humbled and inspired by the courage and trust demonstrated, I asked for an opportunity to meet later to better understand their life journey.

James Loduca, then Director of Equality Programs for Salesforce, opened our amazing 9th Annual IWL Women’s Leadership Conference in Indianapolis last summer. James Loduca also opened my eyes, heart, and now voice even wider on this topic of allyship.

James is gay. James is in a loving relationship with a wonderful partner. Together they have a beautiful young daughter. With boldness, James inspired me and the other nearly 1,200 people at the JW Marriott to recognize that we are all on an equality journey! Yes, each of us is playing on some field in our life that isn’t level. James also encouraged each of us in the room to be an ally for someone who is on a different equality journey than our own. I was deeply moved by his talk. I had a pivotal awakening on my role and responsibility to also be an ally.

Five Simple Steps to Being an Ally

Since last year’s Indianapolis conference, I came across this compelling definition of allyship from The Anti Oppression Network: “Allyship is an active, consistent and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.” 

In other words, allyship isn’t about “saving” someone. It’s about treating them as an equal and advocating for them.

In his keynote, James offered four simple steps for being an equality ally: ask about experiences, listen and seek to understand, show up, and speak-up. As I have continued to reflect on what being an ally looks like, I have also added another, which I believe is the critical first step: understand and acknowledge your own privilege.

  1. Understand and acknowledge your own privilege.
  2. Ask others about their experiences and share yours.
  3. Listen with empathy and seek to understand different perspectives.
  4. Show up by being present, engaged and committed.
  5. Speak up as an advocate and evangelize your allyship among others.

In our work tied to activating men as allies, we stress that “ally” is not just a noun, but a verb. It’s about action, looking for small and big opportunities to speak up for another even when that person isn’t in the room. It’s a chance to share resources and continuously disrupt the power imbalance. It also requires forgiveness when people come from a good place and may make a misstep.

I am grateful for the men that are allies of mine and the work of IWL. I am now even more committed to being an ally for others — and that doesn’t mean just for women like me.

So, two questions I’ll leave you for reflection:

  1. Who can YOU be an ally for?
  2. What ONE next step can you take on your allyship journey?

Kim Graham Lee is the CEO of Integrating Women Leaders Foundation.

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