by Sarah K. White

Allyship: Stepping up for a more inclusive IT

May 14, 2021
Diversity and InclusionIT LeadershipWomen in IT

IT leaders seeking to make a difference on diversity must become better allies of marginalized groups in IT, a process that requires reflection and courage in assuring issues are addressed and voices are uplifted.

woman making decision executive future horizon strategic diversity insight leader
Credit: XiXinXing / Getty Images

Diversity and inclusion are fast becoming cornerstones of IT hiring and retention strategies. Recognizing the importance of fostering diverse teams, IT leaders are reaching out to new talent pipelines and reassessing internal practices with a lens for inclusion.

But beyond recruitment and recognition, more challenging work awaits in the form of advancement — of ideas, perspectives, and careers. For IT leaders committed to diversifying their teams and uplifting those traditionally underrepresented in IT, this effort requires allyship.

Allyship is actively advancing inclusion for a marginalized group. It isn’t a professional handout; it’s working to understand where everyone in your organization is coming from, recognizing everyone’s work, listening intently to their perspectives, and ensuring that you foster an inclusive culture by advocating that everyone in your organization does the same.

Being an ally for underrepresented colleagues can be challenging work, involving difficult conversations, self-reflection, and self-education. But in an industry in which representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and women has long been problematic, it is necessary — and can be very rewarding.

“Allyship is so important because, when you look at the numbers at the top, they’re just not there. They’re not balanced right in order for us to really move the needle — and for there to be greater representation with women and people of color, we need allies,” says Kailei Carr, CEO of the Asbury Group, and Emerge Academy Director at ITSMF, an organization aimed at increasing the representation of Black professionals at senior levels in IT. “It’s critical for those in positions of power and influence to advocate on our behalf in order to create more seats at the table, and to provide opportunities for a more diverse group to have seats at the table.”

The power of allyship

Sherrie Littlejohn can personally attest to the value of allyship. Now CEO of Littlejohn Leadership Coaching and Consulting, Littlejohn says when she first started her career in IT, she “didn’t know anything about corporate America.” What she did know was that she was very good at math and she was interested in computers. She took a job at Bell Laboratories, where she was quickly made aware that many people assumed she was there only as an “affirmative action” hire. Littlejohn knew she was more than qualified for her position and was determined to make her voice heard in the organization.

Sherri Littlejohn, CEO, Littlejohn Leadership Coaching and Consulting Littlejohn Leadership Coaching and Consulting

Sherrie Littlejohn, CEO, Littlejohn Leadership Coaching and Consulting

Littlejohn’s success has been a direct result of her hard work, qualifications, and that sense of determination. But as a Black woman working in IT, recognition of work and advocacy for her advancement also relied on having strong mentors, coaches, and allies, which she defines as “someone who wanted to partner with me; somebody who wanted to see me succeed.”

At Bell Labs, one of Littlejohn’s strongest allies was Karl Martersteck, a white male executive leader who took an interest in her career and encouraged her to join the Early Career Advisory Program Council. He would take her to lunch quarterly and give her candid advice on how to thrive and grow in the organization. Littlejohn, who was one of the first three African American women at Bell Labs to be promoted to technology supervisor overseeing a team of architects, designers, developers, and analysts, greatly appreciated this advice, and the fact that she had an ally in her corner who could guide her and vouch for her expertise.

“He wasn’t sugarcoating anything, and I listened to everything he said. And he [wasn’t] telling me I can’t do it. He [was] just telling me this is the reality of the environment that I’m working in,” says Littlejohn, who still keeps in touch with Martersteck and now offers career advice to Black IT professionals as an executive coach in ITSMF’s Leadership Academy.

With African Americans accounting for only 2% of tech executives, and women just 20%, allyship in IT is important. Public promises to “do better” as an organization can only do so much. Making adjustments to your leadership style, however, can make all the difference in creating space for underrepresented voices to be heard and to succeed in your organization.

The importance of self-reflection

To embrace allyship, you must first take a step back and self-assess. Review your own past and present actions to understand whether, intentionally or not, you may be holding people back in your organization from being heard, from having their ideas and efforts recognized and included, or from growing their careers.

Martin Davis, CIO, The Southern Company The Southern Company

Martin Davis, CIO, The Southern Company

“I think you really have to do some self-reflection, some self-education,” says Martin Davis, CIO at The Southern Company, adding that this is essential to ensuring you are not just “talking the talk,” parroting narratives about diversity and inclusion, but are reflecting fundamental facets of D&I in your leadership style.

Key questions to ask yourself are: Have you sponsored or mentored people of color, women, or employees from other underrepresented groups in your organization? Do your recruitment or hiring practices extend beyond traditional pipelines or in-house referrals? Are there times that your privilege gave you advantages that someone else might not have received? Have your leadership practices resulted in someone not being heard or fully engaged, or have they contributed to a culture in which staff from underrepresented groups are hesitant to participate?

As part of this process, it’s also important to reach out to others to better understand their experiences and take what you hear as additional information for self-reflection and self-education. “I think there has to be conversations across difference,” Davis says. “So, if you’re a white male, you’ve got to be having conversations with people of color and women and understanding their perspective of the challenges that they have in their organization.”

Embracing challenging conversations

Work that involves self-reflection is challenging, and when it comes to addressing diversity issues and one’s position within them, some IT leaders may be unsure about how to effectively approach these sensitive topics. But being an ally can set an example for the entire company. Allies in leadership positions can demonstrate to employees that conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are encouraged, and that employees from traditionally marginalized groups have a safe environment to bring up concerns they may have about their own experiences in the workplace.

“I think it’s about setting an example from the top, being willing to engage in those uncomfortable conversations. A really effective ally is willing to put some skin in the game, to put some of their privilege on the line, on behalf of someone who doesn’t have that privilege,” says Malcom Glenn, director of public affairs at and former head of global policy for accessibility and underserved communities at Uber.

Conversations around racism, sexism, and bigotry, both within and outside of the workplace, can be very difficult. Carr, for one, has encountered many white professionals in the industry who have expressed that they feel “attacked” by conversations about race and privilege, noting that it can cause them to become defensive and shut down.

Kailel Carr, CEO, Asbury Group Asbury Group

Kailei Carr, CEO, Asbury Group

“Organizations need to be mindful of how they’re rolling things out because these are very heavy conversations, and they’re dealing with people in their belief systems, and that by nature will cause many people to shut down, to be triggered, to feel defensive,” Carr says. “It’s really important to have the right people facilitating and holding space for those conversations and doing it in a way that is rolled out over a period of time, and ensure they’re being really kind and open to the people within the organization in the process.”

Often in conversations about race, for example, well-meaning colleagues may make comments about how they “don’t see color.” By professing being “color blind” these colleagues often seek to avoid addressing issues of race that affect other members of their teams. Moreover, the concept of being “color blind” can be harmful for BIPOC, says Littlejohn, as it doesn’t recognize others’ identities fully, implying that they aren’t seen as a complete person.

Facilitating and holding space for these kinds of conversations in the workplace is a key aspect of being an ally.

What strong allyship looks like

Another central facet of allyship is recognizing the privileges you have as a member of a specific group or as a leader and finding ways to use those privileges to actively help others.

Malcom Glenn, director of public affairs,

Malcom Glenn, director of public affairs,

“Allyship is really about lifting up the voices, the work, and the opportunities for people who are not in positions of privilege and power when you yourself are in one of those positions in an organization,” says Glenn.

Melinda Epler’s Ted Talk on being a better ally highlights a common issue women face in the workplace. Tasked with giving her first presentation to her fellow executives at an international engineering firm, she was the only woman in the room. As she walked on stage, the male executives in the audience turned to their phones and laptops, and even conversed among one another, interrupting her presentation. Epler’s experience speaks of the need for an ally — a person in a position of privilege, in her case a male executive, to call out others for not paying attention, and to redirect the room’s attention to her presentation. 

Andrew Grill, global managing partner at IBM, writes of an incident in which he did just that. Grill was invited to present at a conference in the UK, where he realized he was one of a group of “five middle-aged men” on the stage, which he felt was not a “fair representation of the digital, social, or even real world.” When asked to respond to a topic about gender diversity, Grill gave up his seat on the panel to a woman in the audience to let her speak more on the topic. Such gestures speak volumes about the importance of allyship in the workplace. To use a position of privilege in a situation to create an opportunity to uplift an underrepresented voice and thereby address an otherwise inequitable dynamic. 

Here, the ability to look out and recognize those who may not have the opportunity to advocate for themselves is key. When working in the marketing department at a tech company, Carr noticed that the pay of a new employee on her team seemed low for the quality of work he was doing, not to mention his experience and the cost of living of a major city. He had been with the company two or three years prior to joining her team, so Carr was concerned that no one else had flagged this discrepancy.

“It just didn’t seem right for him to be so underpaid while producing such quality work,” Carr says. “So when I think about allyship, I do think that sometimes it requires us to dig deeper, and to analyze situations and circumstances, and being the one to say that isn’t right, even when no one else does.”

Carr advocated for this employee by going to HR, bringing up the concern, and pointing to his strong performance reviews. HR worked to adjust his pay, bumping his salary up by nearly 15%.

An important thing to keep in mind in working to be an ally is that everyone wants the same thing in the workplace: and that’s to be valued, Littlejohn says. Everyone wants to be seen, heard, appreciated, and be able to bring their “authentic self” to work.

“I want somebody to give me feedback that allows me to grow. I want somebody to engage with me and see the value that I bring,” she says. “I want to be able to bring my authentic self and I want to be able to bring all of me to work, so that I can give you something that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. Ask me questions, come engage with me and come learn about me. And allow me to learn about you. It’s a mutual relationship that we’re trying to build here.”

Allyship requires ongoing commitment

All too often DEI initiatives are executed as a “one and done thing,” overwhelming employees with a bunch of one-off diversity trainings and considering the issue fully addressed, Carr says. Allyship and proper DEI initiatives should be ongoing, constantly evolving and growing with the business. DEI is a long process that requires everyone in the organization to put in the work to understand how intricate issues of systemic racism, bias, and sexism manifest in the workplace. Allies know this and are always on the lookout for opportunities to advance the organization on addressing DEI issues.

Leaders should not expect employees who represent marginalized groups to educate you and their colleagues on allyship or diversity, nor for the onus of DEI work to rest on these employees. While some employees may be interested in helping further diversity initiatives, you can’t expect your BIPOC or women employees to educate their coworkers or other leaders in the organization on these topics. Instead, as an ally, you can facilitate opportunities for employees who represent marginalized groups to share their journey on their own terms, either with you or with other employees, while also ensuring a more diverse group of individuals are involved in doing the DEI work your organizations needs to address.

It’s also important to note that allyship is a long-term commitment that requires attuning to the strengths and viewpoints all employees bring to the organization, starting with hiring and continuing throughout employees’ careers.

“It’s not enough to bring underrepresented people into an organization, it’s also not enough just to give those people opportunities, it is really about making sure that those people have opportunities not because they’re part of a marginalized group, not because they’re not in a position of power, but because they actually have real deep-seated expertise, and a different perspective that’s going to be a value add to the ultimate goals of the organization,” says Glenn.

The courage of conviction

One of the biggest issues Carr, Glenn, Davis, and Littlejohn encounter when working with executives who want to do more for DEI, but aren’t sure where to start, is that they’re often afraid of “making mistakes.” They’re concerned they may do or say the wrong thing, making matters worse and drawing negative attention to their efforts. So instead they often choose to stay quiet and do nothing, undercutting their opportunity to be a better ally.

“Sometimes people are frozen with fear, fear of having the conversation,” Davis says. “But diversity, equity, and inclusion work is all about courageous conversations. You’ve got to be able to call it when you see it; you got to have the tough conversation in the moment. And you know that’s not for the faint of heart.”

Confronting your own bias and privilege can be very uncomfortable; so too can be having these kinds of challenging conversations in the workplace. But having the courage to do so — and to make mistakes in the process — is fundamental to being an ally.

“It’s important for people in power to be the ones carrying the flag, because if I’m sitting here and I’m the only one who is going to bring up the issue of diversity or inclusion or equity, that puts me in a very vulnerable position. And so that’s why it’s so important for allies to get the table,” Davis says.

It’s not about the mistakes you make on your path to allyship, it’s about how you learn from those mistakes and grow. There’s no perfect way to be an ally, but the most important thing you can do is keep an open mind and continue to listen, learn, and educate yourself on the topics so you’ll know when to speak up and when it’s time to give someone else the opportunity to speak up.