Allyship: The key to diversity

The death of George Floyd has had a profound impact on us all, the level of support for the Black Lives Matter protests shows this. We feel compelled to do something, we want to help drive change, but we don’t always know how.

This is the pertinent question: how do we in our industry really make this moment count?

Not everyone can be a Champion – we can be passionate about a cause but our depth of feeling only goes so far without personal experience of oppression.

We can however all be Allies – we can all support the cause. An ally stands alongside the under-represented and supports their cause, because of its importance to the one being oppressed.


An ally’s defining attribute is “empathy” a quality which is hard to build without personal experience of discrimination or close relationship with those who have suffered such experiences. In the words of American author Brené Brown, “Empathy is not so much connecting to an experience but connecting with the emotions that underpin that experience”. 

Some diversity experts have argued that while the pace of change has been slow for most protected characteristics, the advance of the gender balance cause has been aided in part because some male business leaders have built empathy through the experiences of their daughters siblings and spouses. Whereas when it comes to race, disability or sexuality, it is perfectly possible to live one’s life without close interaction with anyone with those characteristics. Even professed champions may struggle to be natural allies of others e.g. Pink Petro surveyed their most engaged members on allyship with women, people of colour, the LGBTQI community and climate/ society. The survey[1] showed that while 84.2% of members identified as allies of women, 54% of members thought of themselves as allies of people of colour.

Proximity precedes empathy; such proximity is what we felt as we watched an eight minute 46 second clip of a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd. It also explains why the role of the ally has been most prominent in the Black Lives Matter campaigns that have followed.

Case Studies – how would you react?

In order to aid our understanding of the ally, we would like you to consider the following scenarios inspired by real events:

Scenario 1

Karen is a female engineer working for a major oil and gas operator. One day while attending a training session to learn a new time-writing application, Karen asks a question about a feature of the new package. The instructor who is male responds by suggesting that as admin staff she does not need to learn about that feature. As an ally, how should you respond?

Scenario 2:

Mani is an apprentice and works for TP Engineering services. Mani is also a Muslim and he prays five times a day. Some colleagues joke about him having more break time than everyone else and have on occasion called him a “part-timer”.  As Mani’s manager, how would you make Mani’s colleagues realise he is not being given preferential treatment?

Scenario 3:

Paul is a guest speaker at a corporate dinner, and he is seated at a table with guests who all happen to be white. At a point one of the hosts, a senior person in the company starts to tell a joke and Paul knows straight away that black people are likely to be the butt of the joke. Paul has a split second to decide if he should just go along with the joke or register his discomfort in some way. What would you advise Paul to do?

The culturally common thing to do in these situations is not to intervene. It is, however, important to remember the words of the anti-Apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. Silence is complicity.

Here are a few common reactions:

Common ResponseAlly’s Response
I’m uncomfortable with this, I think I will remove myself from this situation.I won’t walk away. I will try to help.
I may make things worse by pointing it out. Worse for who? The victim or me? Better to try and fail than to fail to try.
I know many minorities who are not so sensitive.I will not lump the experiences of all minorities together.
I know the person who said that, and they are a nice person; they are not racist or sexist.I will read more and listen to my BAME and female colleagues to try to understand what the world looks like through their lens.
It’s not my place to get involved in the business of others.It is my place to make my world fairer and so I will work on ways to intervene that are non-confrontational but effective e.g. using light humour to point out casual racism or sexism.

How to be an Ally

Looking at the scenarios and common responses above, allyship involves the following elements:

  • Acknowledging the Issue: Whether it be sports stars taking the knee or individuals / organisations speaking out publicly in support of the Black Lives Matter cause. This is the first step; in acknowledging that this is an issue which needs to be addressed, we begin the journey towards diversity and inclusion.
  • Speaking out: Inequality can be an uncomfortable subject to talk about especially if you are perceived to have benefitted from the same inequality e.g. the “Pale, Male and Stale” stereotype.  As Allies we must encourage and engage in open, honest and respectful discussion and we must call out discrimination when we see it. 
  • Acting:  Whether it be lobbying for change in our organisations or physically removing symbols of inequality, we must respond through conscious action and not just words. Whatever reservations one might have about the approach taken by the protestors who removed the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, it was notable that the people who did that were mostly white. They were demonstrating their intolerance of inequality through deeds.
  • Educating ourselves and others: What movies do you watch? What books do you read? Have you listened to a podcast lately? Who have you brought into your social circle? What books have you added to your children’s reading list? True lasting change will only come when we educate ourselves and this does not have to be tasking; whether it be online articles, Netflix documentaries or by visiting the OGUK Diversity and Inclusion in Energy website, there is now a vast array of material available to help us educate ourselves and others.

There’s so much we can all do; as a leader in your company, you can use the privilege of your position to sponsor the career progression of a capable female or minority ethnic colleague. You can participate in reverse mentoring. As a parent, you can advocate for our educational curriculum to reflect the historical contributions of women and ethnic minorities more accurately.

Additionally, you can look out for opportunities to support colleagues who may be going through a difficult time.  You can even seek out opportunities to attend events run by diversity organisations such as an LGBT or carers/disability events where you may have less in common and can be in the minority. This will help you understand what it is like for minorities and you may come away feeling more empathetic.

So, if you have been moved by recent events but don’t consider yourself a “champion” per se, remember this – Champions can only get so far without Allies – so become an ally!

[1]Pink Petro, ALLY Council, Q3 Business Update 2020, p.8.