• Emily Mathison

Are you an ally or an advocate?

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Allyship is a tough one. It’s buzzing in our social ether, but it’s pretty intangible. How do you know when you’ve become an ally? Will you get a nifty little pin that says so? Can you add this verification like a blue checkmark on Twitter? 

Sorry, no. It’s not about you. And while I think you already knew that, it’s honestly hard to keep driving towards something for someone else’s sake. We’re selfish and individualistic (especially in North America) and our monkey brains drive towards our own survival. Researchers are clear that in humans or other animals, there is no such thing as a truly selfish act. So working from that ugly, honest admission, I suggest we focus more on advocacy rather than allyship. Hear me out.


Allyship feels a bit… loose.

Allyship is widely defined as being in supportive association with another person or group. Advocacy is giving public support for a cause or oppressed group. At least for me, allyship feels a bit… loose. A bit like that black square we all posted on Instagram (yep, I did it too). But advocacy goes a step further. It compels you to put your actions and, if you can, resources, where your mouth is. Sure, I can say I’m an ally, but who does that really serve? My self-image and ego perhaps. But if I commit to being an advocate, then I damn well better step up. 

I say this with gender diversity in mind. I began thinking about this because when I set out to write this article, I planned to talk about how men can be better allies for women in the workplace (and I still will in future weeks, stay tuned). But when I dove into the topic I couldn’t help but think, ‘I don’t want someone who calls themselves an ally — I want an advocate’.

If your workplace is described as a “boy's club” — figure it out. 

If you (my dudes) know I’m being paid less than you for the same work, say something. If another male co-worker makes this inappropriate comment that was said to me when I was feeling sick at work: “well at least you’re not pregnant!” (oh yeah, that happened), call it out! If your workplace is described as a “boy's club” — figure it out. 

Maybe you’re not one to join the Women’s March in a pussyhat or co-found a period products company (hi, Jayesh!). That’s normal, I can imagine I would feel uncomfortable sticking my neck out too. But I feel more uncomfortable knowing that on average it takes 15.5 months for a Canadian woman to earn what a man makes in 12 months. And for Indigenous, disabled, immigrant, or racialized women it’s much worse. Or that gender inequality holds back an estimated $150 billion from Canada’s GDP. That’s Billion with a B, folks. 

However, companies that commit themselves to gender diversity are found to financially outperform industry medians by 15% (make that 25% for those committed to ethnic diversity as well). I would venture to guess that companies in the top percentile have gone further than labeling themselves as allies and are taking concerted action towards ensuring more equal representation on their teams.

It’s a small world after all, and if you think an inequality is someone else’s problem, think again.

So maybe that’s how we overcome our inner selfish voice that pushes back against altruism and rationalizes, “but it doesn’t really affect me” or “because I don’t agree with this oppression I can say I’m an ally”. We can overcome this by facing hard facts and learning how oppression or injustices faced by a group do not affect that group alone. It’s a small world after all, and if you think an inequality is someone else’s problem, think again. 

If empathy isn’t enough, trick your silly, selfish monkey brain. Learn how issues relate to yourself (you know it’ll hurt extra hard if that’s your bottom-line). It’s not about you, but if you understand how it affects you, maybe you’ll be more compelled to go from ally to advocate.

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