One of the hardest questions a person with privilege can ask themselves is: "Am I really doing everything I can to be a true ally to the marginalized and underrepresented groups around me?"
On the organizational level, this is a crucial question for business leaders to ask as well. As significant actors in society, organizations hold a lot of power to fight systemic discrimination. But when their efforts to be allies are inauthentic or performative, it can erode trust, lead to higher attrition among marginalized employees, and hurt the movement for workplace diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) on the whole.
But how can an organization ensure it's not guilty of performative allyship? Let's dive in.
What is performative allyship?
Performative allyship is when individuals with privilege or corporations project themselves as an ally to a marginalized group in a manner that is disingenuous and unsupported by their actions. In the Black community, it's sometimes described as "talking the talk without walking the walk."
PowerToFly’s DEIB team also defines performative allyship as “when you see this work as a box to check. It’s when this work only happens when it’s convenient or when you’re reminded of it, as with a heritage month on the calendar or when there’s a racist tragedy.”
For corporations, performative allyship could look like posting a rainbow logo on social media during Pride month without making any substantive efforts to center the LGBTQIA+ community's needs in their policies.
Take the example of the fashion brand Zimmerman. During the Black Lives Matter 2020 protests, Zimmerman shared an Instagram post with a black square supporting #BlackLivesMatter. However, Zimmerman's visual requirements of women employees disallowed buns, plaits, braids, or ponytails—which is how many Black women style their hair. That’s the kind of hypocrisy synonymous with performative allyship.
Performative vs. intentional allyship
Performative allyship is ultimately self-oriented, as it's done to promote one's public image or hop on a trending bandwagon. And it’s also the kind of so-called allyship that happens when its convenient for non-marginalized groups.
Authentic allyship, on the other hand, is intentional. Our DEIB team defines it as: “The active, consistent practice of using one's power and privilege to achieve equity and inclusion while holding yourself accountable to marginalized people's needs. Real allyship is what happens every hour of every day. It's ongoing work and a lifelong journey.
In an organization, that could look like closing the pay gap, providing paid parental leave and fertility benefits to queer couples, and having regular dialogues with underrepresented groups to check discriminatory behavior.
How to avoid performative allyship
Performative allyship isn't exclusively bad: when a critical mass of people gestures towards allyship, it does apply social pressure on others to conform. But when the buck stops there, it can have an overwhelmingly negative effect — and not just on the progress of DEIB movements. Performative allyship is often exceedingly obvious, and once it's exposed, it can erode trust and congeniality among employees.
Here's how to promote intentional allyship in the workplace
The workplace, where many of us spend most of our waking hours, can be a space where folks are exposed to a diverse range of people from all walks of life. This makes it a key context to practice authentic, intentional allyship within. Here are four ways your organization can make sure it's promoting intentional allyship, instead of its performative cousin.
1. Offer financial support to the causes that impact underrepresented groups
Putting your money where your mouth is is an easy and immediate way to show support. Alongside projecting support publicly, does your company use a Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, and Belonging (DEIB) lens on their philanthropic giving? Do you match employee donations?
2. Fund Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).
Financial support should come in the form of giving resources to employees organizing on the inside, too. The Harvard Business Review reported on what Black ERGs needed most during the wake of the George Floyd protests: actual equity and resources. That can include: paying ERG leaders (which some companies, including LinkedIn, already do); funding conference attendance and entry into professional organizations; events budgets; and administrative support.
3. Proactively review and improve your internal policies and materials.
In our Executive Forum earlier this year, we talked about the impact of language on Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. We discussed taxonomy audits or taking a detailed look at the language you use to refer to different groups internally and externally and how companies can use this as a gateway to allyship. The same goes for reviewing your benefits and policies, from family leave to gender-affirming health care.
4. Hire DEIB professionals to educate your employees
Conduct regular training with DEIB professionals to educate all your employees on relevant issues. It is not your underrepresented employees' duty to educate their colleagues in addition to performing their jobs. Having employees who want to voluntarily help with DEIB efforts is excellent. But whether you're planning a one-off lecture or an ongoing book club, make sure you're using the services of qualified professionals, like those at PowerToFly, to give you the expertise you need. And when you are relying on internal talent to spearhead different DEIB initiatives, compensate them accordingly.