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How white men can be better allies on race

4 Aug 2020 By Christian Edelmann

With Covid-19 disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities, particularly black women, it’s more important than ever for leaders to better support this group, says Christian Edelman

I thought I was an ally to women. For the past five years I’ve been an executive sponsor of my workplace’s women’s network. But Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter have taught me I have only been an ally to some women. Until recently, my allyship has been focused primarily on gender. Because of how I was brought up and the industry I work in – financial services – this means I have been almost exclusively advocating for white and Asian women. I am only just starting to understand the complex experiences of black women specifically, and change to make my allyship more inclusive.

Because as a white man I have the privilege of a voice and an audience, and because I know so many of my peers will be in the same situation and will also want to do better, I would like to share some of what I have learned so far. 

There are huge historic and ongoing barriers that make the experiences of black women vastly different to those of white women and other women of colour. In the workplace, research shows black women are more ambitious yet less likely to be promoted. Another study reports that black women find being authentic at work can have a negative impact on their careers and are therefore compelled to replicate the dominant workplace culture. This places them under the additional strain of trying to match a professional ideal usually based on white women. 

Then along comes a crisis like Covid-19, which has both highlighted and exaggerated the burden this demographic faces. The Office for National Statistics reported in May that black women are more than four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white men and women. Even before the pandemic, the Carnegie UK Trust report on racial equality in the workplace found black people of all genders were less likely to have a permanent job contract, more likely to be unemployed and more likely to be employed in some form of precarious work than their white counterparts. Additionally, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, working mothers are 47 per cent more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit since the start of the crisis and 14 per cent more likely to have been furloughed. 

So the unequal impact of the pandemic, and the significant effect it could have in rolling back years of progress in gender and race equality, means effective allies are more important than ever. With men being the dominant group in many professional workplaces, arguably we have the most power to make substantial changes, and rapidly. 

With this at the forefront of my mind, I sponsored a workshop run by Men4Change – a part of Oliver Wyman’s women’s network that supports awareness, dialogue and action among men to decrease inequity within our firm and society. Through the session we identified the following practical actions men can take to be better allies during Covid-19:

Ask how people are feeling

It's important to ask how people are feeling, what they are going through and whether there is anything they would like you to do to help. This can be as easy as a five-minute check-in at the start or end of a Zoom call, but can lead to important changes that create a more inclusive environment. Everyone’s experience of the pandemic is unique. Many parents are juggling work and childcare needs and those with underlying health conditions have been confined for months. While we are all anxious about the health of our friends and family, that feeling is elevated in ethnic minority communities, where the evidence points to significant vulnerabilities to Covid-19

On top of a pandemic, black communities have had the added distress of police killings, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and many others. At such key moments, showing people they are not alone is crucial. A simple email asking if they are ok will never be enough to remove that pain, but it can still make a huge difference. 

Expand your network beyond your usual circle

At a time when our spontaneous interactions are curtailed and those that do happen are moderated through a screen, it can be easy for our professional networks to unconsciously contract around those we already know and trust. We simply have less space for informal catch-ups and we can’t bump into new people at the photocopier. In businesses that rely heavily on professional networking this can lead us to work with an ever-smaller group of people – which, given the current composition of our workplaces, may end up being white and male.  

To avoid this, join activities organised by employee networks both within and outside your business to meet new people – for example, a virtual pub quiz hosted by the women’s network or an interactive webinar from your BAME network. Another good tip for both networking during lockdown and expanding your network is to turn to LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram. Start following a new public figure, group or organisation that is outside of your comfort zone. 

Educate yourself

While the pandemic has been a challenging period, if you are looking to fill the time normally spent commuting or in the pub, use the opportunity to read and educate yourself about inequality in our society and the steps we can take to level the playing field. Invisible Women and Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race come particularly recommended. As before, you could look to social media to better understand the experiences of women and elevate their voices by ‘liking’ or reposting their content. 

Practise allyship at home

The appearance of colleagues’ and clients’ family members on video conferences has provided a source of joy (and at times amusement) for many of us and has given an insight into people’s personal lives that we did not have before. It’s also a reminder that allyship often starts in our own home. Whether it’s adopting a 50/50 childcare split, taking it in turns to make dinner or making the time to also check in on your other half’s elderly relatives, there are many small actions we can take to ensure we don’t reinforce (particularly gender) stereotypes in our personal lives. 

Living through this pandemic is difficult for all of us. But we must not ignore the clear evidence that women – and particularly black women – have been more severely affected by many of the societal and economic changes caused by the crisis. As men, we must be more supportive and effective workplace allies than ever before. We can do this by extending our allyship to those who need it most and consciously including those who may not have not benefited from it as much in the past as women similar to ourselves. I know I have more to learn and much more to do, but I hope other men will join me on this journey. 

Christian Edelmann is co-lead of financial services, EMEA at Oliver Wyman

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