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Walking in your shoes

Allies are a fundamental part of the quest for equality. In this month’s blog, Baker McKenzie Inclusion and Diversity partner, Sarah Gregory, reflects on the part allies have to play and how important showing empathy is.

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Sarah Gregory


A fundamental issue in the inclusion and diversity space is ensuring that this is something which concerns everyone; where everyone feels they have a role to play. Most recently I have been looking at this in the context of gender, particularly following International Women's Day in March. It is clear that gender issues are not just for women; the world is becoming more alive to the fact that gender is not binary, but there are even in a conservative estimate at least two genders! Allies are a fundamental part of the equation and the impact of the UN’s HeForShe campaign cannot be underestimated. Certainly, here at Baker Mckenzie we have seen the impact of this when we launched a HeForShe campaign this year. HeForShe is based on men being allies to help the debate around gender equality as studies have shown impactful change in the workplace won’t happen unless gender equality becomes an issue for all. Of course, we have long recognised the importance of allies in the LGBT+ movement where the impact has been huge both in terms of supporting individuals but also changing culture overall.

By stepping up and making their voices heard, allies show this is an issue that is more than the special interests of just one group - it's an issue for humanity. And at the same time they show their support to the group in question. As part of our ‘HeForShe’ campaign we asked men to come forward to share their experiences around the issues that affect women in the workplace, and to become HeForShe ambassadors. For many men the response is similar to that of one male partner, who told me, “Essentially I have never understood my part in this and how I can help?“ This is one of the fundamental challenges around allies: showing the practical things allies can do differently day to day to make a change to the colleagues they are supporting. While the large scale cultural changes do need an element of tone form the top, what can produce the impetus for this is the small iterative victories over prejudice everyday – literally culture hacks which transform what is seen as ‘normal’ and therefore acceptable.

So what can male allies do differently day to day? Consider speaking up to point out that a woman hasn’t been allowed to finish or has been spoken over in a meeting, or give a woman the chance to speak if she has not been afforded the opportunity to do so. If you see bias or hear a sexist joke, point out the behaviour. In one example, I came across a male colleague who said he proactively offered to make the tea in a new meeting situation to ensure his sole female colleague in the room wasn't asked to. It's as simple as the use of the female pronoun in regards to a management role in a report or a male colleague refusing to speak on a panel that has no female speakers. These small changes produce wider changes of culture and mindset. This can lead to bigger things such as full-scale sponsorship of women into executive roles; there are a number of examples I can think of within our firm and outside that depended on senior men championing but also encouraging women reports to move into a higher role.

It shouldn't necessarily be so but sponsorship through difference can sometimes be more powerful. A senior man coming out and highlighting the need for gender equality can be more impactful than a senior woman saying it.

The power of allies translates to all areas of inclusion. One of the driving forces initially behind Baker McKenzie’s ethnicity network was a white male ally. With our mental health initiative, allies give the message of support to colleagues that helps to remove the stigma attached to talking about issues of mental health but they can also provide a key safety net by being trained to spot the signs and support colleagues when issues arise.

What is so important though is the need for true authenticity and sensitivity around this support. The key is it's empathy not appropriation; if everyone from day one were inclusive leaders then it might not be an issue. But what we say when we step up as allies is this is not a woman’s issue, an ethnic minorities issue and LGBT+ issue or a disability issue, it's a human issue. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her essay and talk We Should All Be Feminists, “My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there's a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”


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