On Becoming an Ally: Women in Leadership

By Dr. Irma Campos, Licensed Psychologist

The more we use certain terms in our daily lexicon as business professionals, the more they can lose their essence. I believe this can be said of the following terms: diversity and inclusion, allyship, equality, empowerment, and equity. Unfortunately, the more we say these terms, the more we feel we are living up to what they actually mean too. But that of course is not always the case (although we may be well-intentioned). So that brings me to the topic of this post. How do we know if we are truly demonstrating behaviors consistent with being an ally to an underrepresented group, such as women in leadership? How can we hold ourselves or others accountable?
In 2018, women represented 40% of those in management positions in the United States (Catalyst, 2019). The statistics are extremely troubling when we assess Women of Color in management positions. Women of Color accounted for 12.4% of women in management positions. The barriers that Women of Color (and other individuals of intersecting identities) face professionally will be a topic I will discuss in future posts.
It has been documented that the higher up the leadership ladder (e.g., executive levels), we find less gender (and other underrepresented sociocultural identities) inclusivity for numerous reasons. Many solutions are often offered at the individual level (e.g., managing your own implicit and explicit biases), but I believe the solutions must also be communicated and modeled by the organization. Through my research and consulting experiences with organizations and leaders, here is what I have found that helps in terms of being an ally at the organizational and individual level.
1. Defining tactical goals at the organizational level related to increasing diversity and inclusion while connecting these goals to imperative organizational metrics is a must. These goals should be informed by examination and precise assessment (i.e., assessment through the use of psychometric surveys, focus groups) of what is not working and what is working. An experienced leadership development consultant with training in data analysis and interpretation should ideally facilitate this process.
The tactical goals that are created based on the findings from the examination and assessment process must then be explicitly defined, communicated, and upheld internally and externally by leadership. This top-down approach has worked for countless organizations through multiple mechanisms, including the power of modeling these organizational values and making these values part of the culture. In psychological research, modeling and embedded cultural values have been demonstrated to influence behavior.
2. At the individual level, employees at all levels should be guided in addressing one concrete behavior that has been reported as a general bias or concern experienced by underrepresented individuals. With the right support, employees should be assisted in identifying research-based methods to engage in behavioral change.
As a general place to start, many women in leadership report lived experiences of being devalued or undermined in their positions in both implicit and explicit ways. At previous workplaces, for example, I recall experiences of providing unique contributions and personal ideas that came from a desire to give back to the organizations. Unfortunately, those contributions were attributed and claimed by others under the guise of my being supervised by a more ‘senior-level’ professional. From other women leaders I have heard their painful experiences of offering an exceptional idea or contribution, which in the moment may be overlooked or not attended to, only later to realize someone else has ‘independently’ generated that contribution and subsequently received recognition for doing so.
At the very least, I believe being an ally means fully hearing, seeing, and acknowledging a person for their individual strengths, contributions, and lived experiences in societies and organizations. At the heart of being an ally is ultimately being a compassionate and self-aware being with a commitment not only to change oneself for the better, but to change systems for the better for those who have been underrepresented for generations.

Catalyst, Quick Take: Women in Management (August 7, 2019).