Thank you for being a friend! Uncomfortable truths about allyship in the tech sector

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett October 19, 2020
It's not enough just to talk about allyship; organizations in the tech space need to back up their words with practical actions.


How can you be a good ally? This question has become increasingly prominent this year in the wake of the George Floyd murder in the US, but it’s one that has plagued the tech industry for many years, with its ‘Bro Culture’ reputation and its lack of diversity at all levels. 

As part of the recent Black Tech Fest event, a group of tech industry execs – all in positions of privilege in some way – tackled the topic of allyship. Their discussion revealed a host of honest and valuable points that highlighted how anyone wanting to be a true ally can take positive steps. 

What is allyship? 

In a book published last year - Diversity Within Diversity Management Volume 22 - two of the authors - Nicholas Salter and Leslie Migliaccio - offer the following useful definition of what's meant by allyship:

Within the workplace, supporting diversity and achieving equity and inclusion are important in order to ensure that organizations are as effective and as socially responsible as possible. Although minorities often play important roles in these efforts, they need not work alone. To complement the work of minorities, allies, that is, non-minority individuals who are supportive of minority communities, can be an important diversity management tool for promoting equity and inclusion. 

Allies are defined as “individuals who strive to end oppression through supporting and advocating on behalf of the oppressed”. Allies are typically non-minorities who use their majority status to enact positive change. For instance, a White person might be an ally for people of color, a heterosexual person might be an ally for people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community, or a man might be an ally for women. 

Listen first

One of the first challenges to overcome with allyship is understanding how to support communities you’re not part of or familiar with, whether that’s a different gender, race or sexuality – and this can be quite intimidating. As David Burnand, Senior Director of Marketing at Box, explained:

It's almost easier to be an unconscious ally than a conscious ally. I've had various points in my career where I have definitely shown allyship in decisions I've made, without actually being aware of allyship. 

But I definitely feel that when you become a conscious ally and you start getting involved with different groups, certainly initially, it can feel a little intimidating. I tend to be quite cautious in what I say initially and try and listen first, and just get a feel for what are the issues, rather than going in and assuming that you know answers. It's very easy to make presumptions. So I think it is intimidating, but it's almost a healthy intimidation in a way because it makes you actually be mindful and open and willing to listen.

Zendesk’s SVP EMEA Andrew Lawson agreed that listening is invaluable – adding that it should be active listening, rather than listening with an intention to change points or views:

One of the things I'm wrestling with right now is the privilege - looking through different lenses. That's something I'm genuinely struggling to come to terms with. How do you look at people's lives through different lenses. It's something I’m looking into, and I'm working with some people to try and really understand them more so that you can actually be really more authentic.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable 

The intimidation factor is understandable, as it can be difficult to have certain conversations – and this can make those in more privileged positions uncomfortable. As Elke Karskens, Director, Executive Program, Workplace from Facebook, observed:

I see people tiptoeing. I see that they're doing their best, they really, really try. But they start a conversation with, ‘No offence, but…’ and the moment you start a chat with that, already somebody is going to assume you're going to offend them. So it is trying to make allies be real allies by being open and transparent, and having the conversations can be difficult but we have to figure it out.

The prospect of causing offence might cause some people to shy away from engaging with other diverse communities to offer their support, but this shouldn’t be the case. Maria Raga, Depop CEO, advised:

As business leaders, and as people, we just need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. It's not an easy process, it’s not an easy discussion. We should not have fear of getting it wrong, because we are going to get it wrong in the process. But it's all about continuing to get educated, to continually understand what it is to be something that we're not, so that we can empathise, we can really lend our privilege.

Show up…and do something

One of the pitfalls to avoid around allyship is taking too much of a passive role, Burnand warned:

You've got to show up, you've got to be present. That's the one thing we've consistently tried to get into our leaders as well. There is little point in talking about allyship unless you prepared to translate it into some form of tangible action. What are you actually going to do?

Lawson agreed:

I've got one rule about being an ally - if you talk about it, you’ve got to show up. I see a lot of people, and particularly yeah, they get excited around Pride, but nobody then shows up. To me, as an ally, you’ve got to go and put yourself into that position and do it. I think that's really important.

Support each other 

For its part, Box has brought all of its employee resource groups together through its Thrive initiative, and has the different groups actively supporting each other. The European arm is relatively small, with around 180 people. Burnand added:

Without that support from one group to another, we would struggle to put on a lot of the things that we put on. One of the things that we saw after the George Floyd murder, was our Pride group donated all of their funds for Pride - because of course they couldn't do a physical Pride this year - to black educational charities, because they felt like that was the right thing to do. 

If you have a strong community in your organization, then ultimately people look after each other. Maybe some of this stuff takes care of itself to some degree through that community.

Make it personal

Allyship isn’t something that should begin and end at the workplace or in our professional lives – it needs to be translated into our personal lives as well for it to be meaningful, argued Burnand:

That for me has been an area this year where it’s been a big journey. Where I live, there is a lot of rural racism; the lack of consciousness about privilege is truly shocking at times. Being willing to stand up and being willing to speak out - if you don't really believe it, if you're just doing it for lip service, then just don't do it. Just save everyone the time and the bother and ultimately the disappointment and just don't bother. Be authentic about whatever it is you commit to.

diginomica’s take

Some important ideas and statements of intent, but with a key message of action needed as well as words.  It’s certainly good to talk and BlackTechFest hosted a number of debates on a variety of crucial diversity topics this week - other reports to follow - but the discussion needs to translate into practical results on the ground otherwise it's a case of tick box platitudes. This is very much a (long) journey and many would argue that the tech sector is among those starting from furthest back! That doesn’t mean it can’t catch up! 

Going back to that definition of allyship by Salter and Migliaccio offered above, they end with a conclusion that bears repetition:

Allyship is a topic that is beginning to receive more attention within organizations as well as from workplace scholars. We hope this trend continues and encourage it; allyship can be beneficial to the workplace, and it is the morally right thing to do. Although prejudice and discrimination still exist in societies across the world, everyone can take part in changing this culture.

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