The past couple of weeks have been a staunch reminder that social inequality is still prevalent in our society, specifically for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Racism is so prevalent it is systemic, and this means that the issue of racism is rooted in our organizational structures, policies, and practices. This results in furthering the exclusion of specific minority groups. According to the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, systemic racism is broken down as:
- Institutional racism: Racial discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society.
- Structural racism: Inequalities rooted in the systemic-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions.
The challenge with systemic racism is that it is not always obvious, nor is it easy to change. According to Korn Ferry, almost 60% of Black executives have felt they had to work twice as hard and accomplish twice as much to be seen as equal as their colleagues. Organizations don’t often assess their talent pipelines to see if BIPOC are progressing fairly through the organization. Nor are they assessing their performance management process to evaluate whether people’s biases are impacting performance evaluations.
Additionally, the challenges are often quite complex. According to PayScale’s The State of the Gender Pay Gap 2020 report, women earned 81 cents for every dollar earned by men. However, when this data was broken down by race, Black or African American women earned only 75 cents for every dollar earned by white men. Further, in a 2019 study PayScale found that Black men earned only 87 cents for every dollar earned by white men in the United States. This data signals not only that there is a lot of work to be done to eradicate these inequities, but also that we need to do a deeper dive when analyzing data to better understand the diversity of our workforces.
This is where understanding intersectional frameworks can come in handy. Intersectionality, a term created by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, explains why people experience inequality in society differently from others with whom they might share some identity categories (e.g. race, sexual orientation, gender identity, class). In the data I presented above, we can see that despite sharing identity categories, the experiences of Black women still differ from those of both white women and Black men.
As hard as it may be, organizations can take steps to become better allies by identifying and eradicating these issues.
Allyship is an active process that involves listening to those who are different from ourselves, reflecting on our own privilege, challenging the racism and other oppressive behavior in our communities, and actively making changes to improve the experiences of those who are different from us.
As organizational leaders, not only do we have the opportunity to change our organizational structures, but we have a responsibility to do so. By analyzing how our organizations have institutionalized racism we can start changing these structures and systems, and we can become better allies.
Recently, many organizations have made internal and external communication efforts to show their support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but there is so much more that organizations should do beyond social media posts to become better allies, including the following:
- Learn about how our organizations have institutionalized racism from existing resources such as books, digital libraries, articles, podcasts, documentaries, movies, and TV shows. We’ve linked a number of these resources at the bottom of this article.
- It’s important to remember that it is our job to educate ourselves. We should not place that work or expectation on our Black colleagues, peers, and friends.
- First, you need to reflect on your organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts. For example, how diverse is your organization? You need to conduct this assessment from entry-level roles to the C-Suite and the board. You should be reflecting on not only the gender diversity but the racial diversity as well. Most importantly, does your organization’s anti-racism and broader diversity and inclusion efforts reflect the internal and external statements recently made? If there is a gap, what will the organization do to close this divide?
- Second, you need to reflect on people’s experiences. Even if the organization is diverse, do people feel heard? Do people feel seen? Do people feel included at the organization? Are people from specific demographic groups leaving at a faster rate than other employee groups?
- Third, evaluate if the organization is making an active effort to create a positive impact on the broader community in which it operates. Many organizations do not reflect the diversity of their neighbors, customers, or partners. Work with the right business leaders on initiatives that empower and uplift the broader community, specifically the Black community. Some examples include programs that ensure the vendors the organization partners with are diverse. How many Black-owned businesses are you working with?
- While we should not expect the Black community to educate us, we still need to listen. If your organization has a Black employee resource group, listen to their experiences as employees of your organization. As you listen to the experiences of your Black colleagues, it's important to avoid being defensive. For many of us, hearing about these experiences can be uncomfortable and upsetting, but it's important that we use this space to listen. We need to understand that sometimes our behavior can be racist or oppressive even when that is not our intention.
- Have Black employees made any complaints that identify microaggressions in the workplace? Microaggressions are comments or actions that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally express a prejudice toward someone. This could be a comment such as “Where are you really from?” or a request for someone to change their hairstyle to be more professional. (Black people are often discriminated against for their hair. Several states have passed the CROWN Act, a law that protects people from discrimination based on their hair texture or the use of a protective style.) If this data is unavailable to you, familiarize yourself with the concepts of microaggressions. This will help you reflect on current instances of microaggressions as well as identify future instances.
- Be active.
- Organizations will have to be careful not to place an additional burden on the shoulders of Black employees in their efforts to make the necessary changes. The diversity and inclusion strategy needs to be a holistic effort, and it is not the responsibility of one employee resource group. Any changes will require those in privileged and powerful positions (e.g. senior leaders and other non-Black employees) to take action to make the experiences of our Black colleagues and peers better.
- To ensure that the changes are sustainable, organizations must leverage their diversity and inclusion strategy instead of creating a series of ad hoc events. In McLean & Company’s 2020 HR Trends Report, we found that organizations that focus on diversity and inclusion are more effective at creating a positive employee experience and fostering an environment of inclusion. If there is no strategy, this is the time for the organization to start creating one. This is a marathon and not a sprint. To take a meaningful approach, organizations must take the time to listen to their employees, evaluate their systems, and implement the right initiatives to ensure the organization is diverse, inclusive, and equitable.
- To move beyond words, social media posts, and internal communications, we need to be prepared to take steps and action to enact the changes we are calling for. This includes but is not limited to creating inclusive organizational cultures, achieving pay equity, having diverse representation at the leadership level, and actively seeking out diverse talent.
- Now that you have begun to do research, engage in reflection, and listen to employees, realize that this journey is ongoing. As allies, we will make mistakes. However, it’s important that we are accountable for these mistakes and learn from them.
- As you practice allyship, it is important that the organization recognizes that being an ally is an active effort that includes standing up for our colleagues, calling each other out when we engage in oppressive behavior, and continuously learning and listening to those who are different from us.
Resources to Further Supplement Your Learning
- Racial Equity Resources by Albrey Brown
- In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Killer Mike shares a number of resources for people to do their homework, including Jane Elliott’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise.
- This online library by TriCollege Libraries provides people with definitions on key terminology such as allyship, anti-racism, and anti-oppression.
- NPR's list of books, podcasts, and films to help people start understanding the depth of racism.
- “The Death of George Floyd, In Context” by Jelani Cobb (The New Yorker)
- “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic)
- “The Problem with ‘Color-Blind’ Philanthropy” by Cherly Dorsey, Jeff Bradach, and Peter Kim (Harvard Business Review)
- “Toward a Racially Just Workplace” by Laura Morgan Roberts and Anthony J. Mayo (Harvard Business Review)
- “The Anti-Racist Starter Pack: 40 TV Series, Documentaries, Movies, TED Talks, and Books to Add to Your List” by Brea Baker (Parade.com)
- Recordings of the King Center's 7-Day #OnlineProtest
- “Code Switch” by NPR
- “Discomfort, Anxiety, and Grief: Confronting Racism with Colleagues” by Harvard Business Review’s the Anxious Achiever
- “Intersectionality Matters!” by Kimberlé Chrenshaw
- /reply-all/ # 52 Raising the Bar by Gimlet
By Camille Galindez