In the days of protest after the killing of George Floyd, companies flooded social media pledging their support for Black Lives Matter and the push for racial equality.
However, amid the flurry of corporate statements of solidarity with the Black community came criticism. Many diversity experts and social justice and equity advocates pointed out that real change goes far beyond a post on Instagram and a financial donation.
Unemployment figures reveal huge race disparities in the UK. Coronavirus pandemic-fuelled job cuts have disproportionately affected black, Asian and other minority ethnic workers, who experienced a 5.3% drop in employment in the year to September 2020, compared to 0.2% of white workers. Major businesses including Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), McDonald's (MCD), Pinterest (PINS)and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) also faced new legal battles over allegations of racism and sexism.
By ignoring their own biases and discriminatory practices but proclaiming their support for equality, companies run the risk of engaging in “performative allyship” as a PR exercise. But what exactly is it, and how can employers avoid it?
Essentially, performative allyship is when companies say they are against a certain type of injustice, without doing the hard work of changing their behaviour or the structures that uphold these problems, the Catalyst report Allyship and Curiosity Drive Inclusion for People of Color at Work states. Not only does this negatively affect the causes, but also employees too.
The Catalyst report highlights: "In the workplace, it might manifest as a company that commemorates Equal Pay Day but does not actually audit its own salaries by gender and race to assess the extent to which there are pay gaps within the organisation. It’s also the executive who proclaims their support for Black Lives Matter, but who continues to work with companies with a history of marginalising black employees and communities."
“To go beyond performative allyship, true allies use their power, influence, expertise, resources, skills, and relationships to push back against long-standing inequities and make meaningful change,” says Sheila Brassel, a senior associate in research at Catalyst.
There are many examples of performative allyship among corporate businesses, including posting articles on social media without taking any further action to press for change. These actions may be as small as starting relevant conversations at work, or making different spending decisions.
In the workplace, it might manifest as a company that commemorates Equal Pay Day but does not actually audit its own salaries by gender and race to assess the extent to which there are pay gaps within the organisation. It’s also the executive who proclaims their support for Black Lives Matter, but who continues to work with companies with a history of marginalising black employees and communities.
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Performative allyship hurts the people it purports to promote because it gives the impression of “doing something” when nothing of substance has occurred, Catalyst states. For employees, it can be deeply demoralising. So how can businesses take real action on inequality?
“As an employer, a critical starting place is simply identifying where your organisation might be unintentionally maintaining inequities. This means analysing data — and possibly gathering new data — using an intersectional lens,” says Brassel.
This means carrying out civil rights audits that examine workforce demographics, hiring practices and company culture. And if problems arise, they should be addressed by businesses rather than explained away or swept under the carpet.
“Look at disparities in representation and inclusion. Challenge yourself to think differently. Track and measure, get familiar with your metrics. Then, you have to follow through and close the gaps.”
Xochitl Ledesma, Catalyst’s director of Leading for Equity and Inclusion, says there are several big milestones to aim for by improving hiring practices and development opportunities for employees. “Having a more diverse board or C-suite takes time to implement. But it’s the greatest sign of commitment an organisation can have,” Ledesma says.
“Diverse leadership provides diverse thought and strategy to an organisation. It also shows members of underrepresented and marginalised groups that they can grow and be promoted.”
Allyship isn’t just about what ideals we hold, but also the work we do too. Structural change isn’t always easy and it takes time, but it’s this action that will lead to a substantive, visible shift in workplaces.
“It requires an understanding of the work that needs to be done and that we all play a role. Then, we need to take sometimes difficult actions to make substantive, meaningful change,” Brassel adds. “By gathering the data and asking yourself pointed questions about inequities in your organisation, you can channel your intentions for change into actual change. Which is what we need.”