While it may feel to some like diversity, equity, and inclusion are at an all-time high in corporate culture, research shows that many things have not changed for women of color in their workplace. The 2021 Women in the Workplace study showed that women are increasingly burnt out and that work experiences for women of color are not improving.
Building a better workplace begins with allyship. The same 2021 study “finds [that] there is a disconnect between what white employees see as important allyship steps and what women of color say makes the biggest difference.”
This week, we had the pleasure of speaking to Luminary’s former Chief Impact Officer and current member of the advisory board, Surabhi Lal. Surabhi is an adjunct professor, speaker, and facilitator concerned with “building a better future for work.” The expertise she brings to the board helps Luminary create programs that are meaningful and impactful.
We are honored to have Surabhi Lal contribute to this piece of what should allyship in the workplace look like in 2022:
In your words, please speak a bit about what allyship means.
I think a lot of people like to say that they’re an ally because of their beliefs. But for me, allyship is about what you do, and it’s the actions that you take. So, do you speak up if somebody says something that you think might be racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist in front of you? Or, do you say nothing but then go to that person later?
A lot of people think, [it's better to] go to that person later and say, "I saw what they said to you, that wasn’t okay." But to me, the best form of allyship is doing something in the moment. So, whether that be to deflect the conversation so the person impacted has a moment to not respond, or whether that be to challenge the person that's making the statement... A lot of people want the props for being an ally, but they don't want to do the work.
You teach classes at NYU on workplace effectiveness. How is allyship essential to an effective workplace?
People work best in workplaces where they feel like they feel valued for what they bring. One of the things that allyship does is it helps people know that they are valued. If you don't feel valued, you're not going to bring your best to the workplace; that's something that many people experience: a setting that doesn't allow them to bring their best. And you show up differently in a setting that does allow you to bring your best. You have a different level of energy, and you can concentrate on your work differently.
One of the things that's been really interesting over the last three years is that there are people who want to continue more of a hybrid workplace, because they feel safer at home. It's not true for everybody. But, there are many people who feel safer at home, and that's because they didn't feel valued in the place of work and that might be because they didn't have allies or people who were showing them allyship.
Your work is centered in "creating a virtuous cycle." As you define it, "A virtuous cycle is one where one change or interaction creates more positive impact." How central is allyship to creating a virtuous cycle in a workplace?
A virtuous cycle means that everything you do within your organization is reinforcing other things for the good. So, allyship is about embedding into your culture and into your workplace community that the [allyship] work that gets done is everybody's work. So many people are like, "Well, DEI does that,” or, "the Chief Diversity Officer does that." But it's work that everybody does. Everybody carries work with allyship, and in lifting other people up in their organization.
We often think about allyship in terms of something negative happening and how one acts in the moment. But there are positive ways in which allyship shows up. [Like,] saying somebody's name for a promotion, or for an opportunity. Particularly if they aren't there, and without being prompted. There may be allyship around rolling out a product, for example, if somebody hasn't thought about a specific demographic and a person brings that up. I don't think allyship is just one on one, and I don't think that allyship is solely done in reaction to something negative.
If [allyship] is built into your workplace culture, it is more likely to happen and not feel like outlier behavior. And in many places, it's seen as an outlier behavior and not part of an expectation in the workplace culture. But, if you're going to build a virtuous cycle, that needs to be embedded in your everyday practices.
Lastly, what advice do you have for any workplace that's looking to create a community of effective allyship?
One is to look at your culture, and two is to listen. You can't just look at your culture, you have to listen to what people are saying. You have to really listen. Not just on a survey. But really, really listening to what your employees are saying about their experience. And allowing them to share without the fear of retribution.