Updated: Jun 7
We live in an age of performance. We curate our lives, posting on social media what we want others to see of us. What we do and say can so easily be made public or reduced to a 280-character tweet.
We also live in a time of growing awareness of the need for true allyship. But as the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements have grown, so have the examples of performative allyship – people speaking up to prove that they are “woke” rather than stepping up to take action for embedding systemic change.
The pressure to prove that we are “woke” is huge. But being “woke” does not inherently change systems or make things better for those who have been systematically excluded from those systems. Ultimately, being a performative ally is self-serving - it is not about serving others.
When George Floyd was murdered, companies in the US pledged a combined $60 billion for racial equity initiatives, but a year later, only $250 million had been spent. It is not enough to have good intentions. It is not enough to make statements and pledges. True allyship takes curiosity, it takes courage and it takes commitment.
Given that June is PRIDE month, let me share with you what LGBTQ+ allyship looks like.
As allies we must be curious and model lifelong learning. Curiosity requires that we take ourselves out of the center of the story and find ways to educate ourselves about others’ realities. One way to do this is through listening to lived experiences of those who are different from us - experiences of marginalization and discrimination. The PRIDE network in one organization I worked with hosted an online global panel with transgender colleagues, facilitated by someone whose child was transgender. The simple storytelling was extremely impactful and shifted many people away from discomfort toward empathy. I remember being incredibly moved by listening to how the organization had at times helped and other times hurt their transgender staff. Highlighting peoples’ stories increases leaders’ awareness of others’ experiences and prompts them to emotionally connect.
After the 2013 boycott in response to homophobic comments made by their leader, Barilla, the Italian pasta company, set up an external DEI advisory board that included David Mixner, a gay rights advocate and author. Mixner refused the invitation four times—reluctant to be associated with the company—before he accepted. When he finally relented, he met the chairman and shared his experiences as a gay man: being the target of hate crimes, being estranged from his family, and losing jobs. Moved by Mixner’s stories, Guido Barilla launched his company’s journey to LGBTQ+ inclusion. Stories combat invisibility in organizations where people feel they must hide certain shades of their identities. Stories invite empathy and shift attitudes. However, in a climate where LGBTQ+ inclusion is not yet the norm, coming out takes enormous bravery. Sharing such stories in a work environment can carry with it the risk of losing one’s livelihood as well as the possibility of alienation and harassment. In some contexts, it is dangerous to be public about your sexual orientation because of the laws in the country. (1) The burden of telling these stories usually falls on people with lived experiences of discrimination. It can be empowering to speak out, but it can also be exhausting to have to share painful memories again and again in order to educate people in power. Allies need to be aware of the toll it takes and ensure that any participation is purely voluntary. And we need to remember that EVERYONE has a DEI story. We can share our own stories – where our perceptions have been challenged, where we have discovered our own privilege and bias– because while many of us may have experiences of marginalization we all also have areas in which we are privileged. I remember an executive leader sharing her story of how – through her daughter coming out – she moved from homophobia to becoming an ally. Being honest about our own growth helps to create organizational cultures where transformation is possible – where people view each other and themselves as changing, growing human beings who are learning with one another.
Recommended Action: expand your learning about LGBTQ+ inclusion and share your transformation stories.
Learning about others’ lived experiences and allowing our own world views to be challenged by them takes courage. It requires that we push ourselves beyond our comfort zone and allow – or even seek out – disruptive experiences. I have seen time and time again that it is those who are brave enough to be disrupted who often become inclusive leaders and strong allies. As true allies we need the courage to take responsibility to seek out disruptive experiences – experiences that might challenge our world view or provoke us to see things differently. In one organization that I worked with, an executive who was insensitive to the challenges and experiences of LGBTQ+ employees was assigned to sponsor the LGBTQ+ Pride employee resource group. The executive and the Pride leadership were both surprised by this assignment. To the credit of both, they worked at it - the executive sponsor wanted to listen and to learn. And the PRIDE members generously and bravely shared their experiences. When he left the company that executive said, “My biggest growth moment at this company came when I became the sponsor of the Pride group.” Disruptive experiences can do two things for us as allies.
First, when we take ourselves out of the center of the story, and we listen to others’ stories, we cultivate our empathy. Transformative allyship comes from a place of empathy.
The other thing disruptive experiences can do for us is to expose to us our own biases and give us the opportunity to correct them.
It takes courage to do that. Being role models in our personal and professional lives. Interrupting inappropriate and homophobic comments and behaviors even when – especially when – they don’t directly impact us. That is what courage looks like!
Recommended Action: be courageous and seek out disruptive experiences, stretch beyond your comfort zones and use this as an opportunity to confront your biases.
With curiosity and courage, leaders are headed in the right direction for sustainable LGBTQ+ inclusion. But we can’t do it without commitment.
This executive sponsor of PRIDE I mention above was curious and genuinely open to listen to the experiences of the PRIDE members. He was initially surprised and resistant, but he had the courage to move outside of his own frame of reference and to allow the PRIDE members to influence his worldview. But knowing that curiosity and courage were not enough, he launched an LGBTQ+ initiative in the new organization that he joined. When we find the courage to actualize our commitment, we energize ourselves and others.
The former CEO of Sodexo and my boss, Michel Landel, demonstrated his commitment in multiple ways, treating DEI as he would any other business priority, making it a strategic pillar for business growth and holding teams accountable. He didn’t hesitate to take bold stands. On one occasion, a client asked that Sodexo not “promote” its LGBTQ+ initiatives on its website and in other communications. Without a minute’s hesitation Michel said, “We can do without clients who don’t respect our values.” He believed in a purpose-driven organization and in treating diversity as a value that creates a strong brand promise and business outcomes.
To actualize our curiosity and courage, it takes commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion. Commitment means intentional action. It means examining your policies to make sure every single policy is LGBTQ+ inclusive - from healthcare coverage for transitioning employees to your bereavement leave policy. It means a gender-neutral parental leave policy in all countries where you operate. It means gathering data by conducting a self-identity campaign so that you can assess the engagement, retention and advancement of your LGBTQ+ employees. And it means ensuring that LGBTQ+ inclusion is integrated into all your systems and practices so that you are fostering a holistic, consistent organizational culture for your LGBTQ+ employees.
When we start talking about systems change and sustainable progress, it is easy to forget that we each have power as individuals, no matter where in the organization’s hierarchy we find ourselves. To step into that power as individuals, it takes curiosity to be open to learning- to constantly be assessing our own strengths and limitations- examining our biases. It takes courage to be brave enough to seek out experiences that might challenge or disrupt our entrenched world view. We need to use ourselves as role models, each of us to own our own LGBTQ+ journey and be willing to be vulnerable and honest about where we have come from and where we are headed. It takes commitment to hold ourselves and our teams accountable; to eliminate bias from talent processes and embed LGBTQ+ inclusion in our systems.
Are you brave enough to do it?
Here is what you can do as allies for LGBTQ+ Inclusion:
Assess your awareness and biases and address the gaps
Be in constant learning mode by seeking out disruptive experiences
Use inclusive language: ask respectfully rather than making assumptions
Nurture a culture of authenticity, learning and growing
Make yourself vulnerable and share your LGBTQ+ transformation story with humility
Be bold and take a stand on LGBTQ+ inclusion
Clearly embed LGBTQ+ inclusion in your business strategy
Examine your talent processes and eliminate biases against LGBTQ+ talent
Look for interconnected opportunities to embed LGBTQ+ inclusion into all processes
Hold yourself and your teams accountable for LGBTQ+ inclusion
To learn more about being an ally and advancing DEI transformation in your organization, please order your copy of my book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
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(1) Daniel Avery, “71 Countries Where Homosexuality Is Illegal: Acceptance of the LGBT Community Continues to Spread around the World, But Homosexuality Is Still Illegal in Many Parts of the World,” Newsweek, April 4, 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/73-countries-where-its-illegal-be-gay-1385974