The Allyship Journey

Stages of the journey

People are at different places when it comes to recognizing the extent to which identity and appearance shape lives and opportunities and what actions they're willing to take against these inequities. Everyone is unique and the journey is windier than it is straight – but it can still be helpful to think about segments of allies in terms of what kind of an audience you're hoping to attract and what your educational goals are for them. 

This section categorizes the segment as:

  • Stage 1: Anti-Diversity
  • Stage 2: Antagonistic
  • Stage 3: Indifferent
  • Stage 4: Cautiously Receptive
  • Stage 5: Eagerly Receptive
  • Stage 6: Committed Advocate

The segments below aren't perfect – each segment could be broken into more specific smaller segments, and this isn't necessarily a linear progression – but for the purposes of running a club and planning events, they can be handy references.

Stage 1: Anti-diversity - "White men naturally should be in charge"

These racist and sexist people are against diversity and multiculturalism and can be either vocal or silent about their beliefs. Silent members of this group can be difficult to spot since they realize their opinions aren't socially acceptable and keep those to themselves – but that doesn't mean they aren't doing harm. Silently bigoted people still make hiring and promotion decisions, evaluate supervisees and colleagues, and support or detract from teammates.

Vocal examples: Male supremacist Men's Rights Activists, The so-called Alt Right

Once-silent-now-outed examples: Harvey Weinstein

John Schnatter, racist ex-CEO of Papa John's pizza

James Damore, fired Google employee who wrote the now famous anti-diversity memo that argued biology/genetics explains why women and people of color are not as represented in tech. These folks tend to say they're not sexist/racist (simply trying to have a rational debate), then they get a little famous and post this kind of stuff on Twitter:

James Damore on the KKK

Stage 2: Antagonistic - "All this diversity stuff is way overblown and it's harder to be successful as a white man in today's world"

These folks are not on an ideological crusade against diversity and multiculturalism, but they perceive it as oversensitivity and people trying to be victims. They don't want to be bothered by it, especially when that means having to change their behavior. These folks use terms like "reverse racism" and believe that discrimination against white men is now just as bad as discrimination against women and people of color (which apparently 47% of white millennials in the US believe). They may have a few specific avenues of compassion if, for example, their wife has had bad experiences in a corporate environment or they have a Latinx friend who has gotten mistaken for service staff in grocery stores and restaurants.

Examples: Travis Kalanick founder of Uber, who was constantly harassing everyone and created a culture of sexism. Read about one female engineer's experience there below:

Stage 3: Indifferent - "We live in a meritocracy"

These folks may realize there's a larger issue, but that it just isn't related to them. They're not a Harvey Weinstein or that racist lawyer from NYC, so they're not a part of the problem. They probably have never thought about how their identity has shaped their or others' experience of life, or why women would be upset at having models in bikinis at business launch parties or that. These folks think that our current world is a functioning meritocracy and see themselves as "gender-blind" and "colorblind".

ExamplesMichael Moritz, Chairman of Sequoia Capital, says that he cannot possibly be discriminating because the company is "blind to somebody's sex"

Stage 4: Cautiously Receptive - "Women and people of color face discrimination, but I'm unsure how widespread it is, how big an impact it has, or how important it is to take action"

These guys realize that good people with good intentions still screw up, believe unconscious conditioning exists, and connect the personal to the systemic in some ways. They realize there's a lot they don't know, but are skeptical of how significant a role gender and race play in someone's life.

Examples: The "White Moderate" made famous by MLK when authoring his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Stage 5: Eagerly Receptive - "This is important to me personally and has big implications in the world"

Folks who are eager to learn get that this is something important for them personally and plays a big role systemically, but haven't yet had the opportunity to go into depth. One potential pitfall at this stage is thinking they know everything and don't need to do ongoing learning, listening, and reflection.

Example: Anthony Bourdain on #metoo "Why was I not the sort of person, or why was I not seen as the sort of person, that these women could feel comfortable confiding in? I see this as a personal failing." (full interview)

Stage 6: Committed Advocate - "Part of my life's work is to continue to educate myself and help heal past injustices"

These are folks who realize how big (and for how long) an impact race, gender, and other forms of identity have had. They see the ways they materially benefit from personal and systemic oppression as well as the ways that they suffer emotionally and spiritually from it. They recognize they'll always be learning about identity and others' experiences, and are in it for the long haul to combat injustice.

John Lewis: "Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble."

Example: John Legend, musician (and former BCG consultant!): "All men should be feminists. If men care about women's rights the world will be a better place... We are better off when women are empowered – it leads to a better society."

Many women and people of color are skeptical of "allies"

There are many self-identified "allies" out there whose behavior ends up harming the people they are supposedly being an ally to or were complete phonies to begin with. Many people claim "allyship" only to engage in problematic behavior: invalidating experiences of discrimination, dominating conversations about what's to be done about gender equity and racism, an unwillingness to put oneself on the line to challenge unjust comments or policies, not doing the conceptual and reflective homework necessary to really show up for somebody... this list is endless.

Useful resources on allyship journey