How To Be An Ally: Stop Fixing People And Start Supporting Them


The tendency to focus on ‘fixing’ the underrepresented rather than leveraging the power of those calling the shots is an issue we come across a lot. At The Honeycomb Works’ ‘How to be an ally’ event I spoke about a number of common mistakes I see organisations making when trying to create inclusive, diverse cultures and this one seemed to really resonate with people.

Organisations often excitedly tell me about programmes they’re running to support diversity and inclusion and to elevate groups that are often held back by traditional structures. For women, this might involve teaching them how to negotiate, how to get better at public speaking and networking or how to be more confident and assertive. I see similar things with programmes for BAME employees. To support mental health and prevent burnout there are resilience and stress management programmes.

The ideal employee

I’m not against developing any of these skill sets and I am entirely for giving development opportunities to people who, for whatever reason, may not have received as much support and development in their careers or who face hurdles others don’t. However - the vast majority of organisations are still centered on a model of an ideal employee that is stereotypically masculine; one who works long hours at the office, is the main earner, is confident, dominant and a strong negotiator. This results in an organisation structured in a way that creates advantage and disadvantage based on gender. Underrepresented groups - particularly ethnic minorities and women in male dominated environments - face negative stereotypes and discrimination.

Anyone who doesn’t fit the ‘ideal worker’ profile is more likely to be seen as problematic and treated as such. Organisations spend their time focusing on trying to ‘fix’ these individuals by pushing them to adhere to a masculinised employee ideal.

Rewarding masculinity

The irony is that research indicates the behaviours often most valued and most lacking in organisations - that create the greatest impact with colleagues and clients alike - are related to emotional intelligence; effective communication, empathy, listening, constructive feedback, trust and safety. Discretionary rewards, as much as more formal rewards, go to women for performing ‘female’ behaviours and men for performing ‘male’ behaviours. And stereotypically female characteristics are not rewarded or valued as highly as ‘masculine’ behaviours.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the people and skills held in highest esteem and rewarded the most fit traditional masculine worker stereotypes and others are often pressurised - overtly or subtly - to assimilate to this model. Research has found that when in the minority, women adopt masculine characteristics in the workplace to both succeed and fit in. This ranges from adapting clothes and language to adopting stereotypical ‘male’ traits like being task oriented.

Why is this a problem

This is an issue on multiple levels. It’s damaging to the individuals trying to fit in; by attempting to assimilate, a disconnect is created between someone’s identity and behaviour which has been shown to cause depression, anxiety and psychological distress  It also reinforces the idea that these behaviours are more valuable when, as we’ve discussed, they simply aren’t.

Unfortunately, what often happens next is that they go back to the workplace and other people aren’t prepared for them. They may have changed but the environment around them hasn’t. So what happens next? They revert to their previous behaviour, become very discouraged or leave.

It isn’t fair

Put bluntly, it isn’t fair. In our desire to be equitable, we’re putting all of the hard work and mental load back onto the individuals we’re trying to help. What about everyone else? What are they doing to improve this situation? People are beginning to realise that women aren’t solely responsible for fixing issues of gender inequity - men have to play a very large part if we’re to ever succeed. This is 100% true but isn’t just true of gender. It’s true in all scenarios where one group has disproportionately more power and resources than another. The group with the power has to step forward and act, recognising the situation is not going to change without their support

What can you do?

So, whether you are responsible for Diversity & Inclusion, a business leader or simply someone who wants to make a difference, make sure you work to support people rather than ‘fixing’ them. To start with:

  • Look at how you can help people to be allies to others, give them the tools to recognise and challenge bias and in doing so take the burden from others.

  • Examine yourself. Where do you place the responsibility to make a difference? Are you a leader or manager inadvertently ‘fixing’ some groups by giving them feedback but ignoring others? For example, giving women feedback that they aren’t assertive enough rather than giving the overly confident men feedback that they need to learn to understand others? Reflect on your own bias and see if you can start developing some allies - including yourself.

  • Do you need to look at the behaviours and skills people are routinely rewarded for and whether they are actually the right things to encourage? Look at your performance management processes - are you calling out, very specifically, behaviours related to emotional intelligence or are they just implied?

What will you do?

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