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How to redefine leadership through the allyship lens

There is a paradox in the concept of allyship in Corporate America and the legal industry, and it underscores the importance of exploring next generation perspectives in this area. Indeed, despite an overwhelming majority of white employees seeing themselves as allies, only 10% of Black women and 19% of Latinas say their strongest allies are white, according to the first ever allyship report from Lean In, released in June.

As part of the research from Penn Law and Thomson Reuters on allyship, I led a panel that looked at efforts to redefine leadership through the lens of allyship. The online webinar event, A New Era of Equality: Redefining Leadership through a Lens of Allyship, sponsored by Thomson Reuters, discussed our research report, Allyship: Upstander vs. Bystander, at length. The panel also included speakers from academia, such as David Wilkins from Harvard Law School, Deborah Rhode from Stanford Law School, Sanjay Sarma from MIT, and Ted Ruger of the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law.

Key highlights from the conversation included:

  • A call for a new theoretical understanding of equality in the current state of the world where three crises — the pandemic, the economic downturn, and the spotlight on systemic inequality — have converged, according to Wilkins. More specifically, the underlying social and institutional mechanisms that have been relied on in the past won’t work now because new driving factors such as global digitization and rise of globalization are forcing people to re-think current solution paradigms. (I also would like to add a fourth crisis to the three mentioned, that of a crisis of leadership.)
  • The reconsideration of harmful language used every day in Corporate America that negatively perpetuates and normalizes these terms. For example, MIT’s Sarma said that master-slave labels that are widely used in computing and other technical contexts to refer to situations where one process or entity controls another, have a damaging effect when viewed through a 21st century lens of equity and inclusion.
  • The need to increase allyship among white men to advocate for change. Penn Law’s Ruger observed that white men, in particular, have been allowed to abdicate this responsibility for far too long. This has meant that the responsibility for allyship has been unequally distributed with the burden of advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion primarily falling on women, people of color, and individuals from other diverse communities. Further, I pointed out that often white men are valorized for being champions of diversity and have received external recognition and validation for this effort while women of color are often sidelined for making it their life’s work.

Upstander actions & intersectional allyship

As part of this event, intergenerational speakers — including members from the Penn Law research team, interviewees who participate in the research, and Millennial and Gen X lawyers — discussed the need for expanded, intersectional allyship. (All of the speakers demonstrated the intersectional approaches to allyship, for example, being members of the LGBTQ community, women of color, and colleagues with a disability.)

Some key points included:

Being allies to gender nonconforming individualsJudge Peter M. Reyes, who is Co-Chair of the Men in the Mix research, being conducted by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women, stated that proactively asking gender-fluid colleagues their preferred pronouns is an easy way to show support and respect.

Using influence to advocate for women and women of colorJustin Pendleton, who was interviewed as part of the research done by Penn Law School and Thomson Reuters, pushed for men as allies to proactively notice the composition of any group setting, and if the group does not include women and women of color, to ask why not. Pendleton also pointed out that men’s socialization within American society has been one of domination, which has led to toxic masculinity and patriarchy that hurts both men and women.

Supporting differently abled colleaguesYasmin Sheikh, who became wheelchair-bound at the age of 29 after suffering a sudden medical condition, described how to demonstrate solidarity with employees who have a disability. When her employer’s global head of HR invited Sheikh to start a disability community, it restored her confidence and self-worth after she initially questioned her firm’s commitment to those who are like her.

Looking ahead to what’s next

This examination of allyship, underpinned by the research done by Thomson Reuters and Penn Law, will continue with additional webinars and the ongoing need to normalize allyship as part of the leadership paradigm.

In the next online webinar, Setting C-Suites for Sea Change on October 20, our panel will dive deeper into to allyship’s impact on workplace policies and practices around work-family integration during the pandemic; and in (Un)Manning the Helm on November 19, we’ll look at how to normalize leadership through removing gender labels from our vernacular and workplace culture.

In addition, we have begun the second phase of the study which will include 70 interviews to reflect on how allyship behaviors can create needed norms that will help entrench new cultural and leadership behaviors in the workplace.

You can listen to the webcast, A New Era of Equality: Redefining Leadership through a Lens of Allyship, sponsored by Thomson Reuters, now on-demand.

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