To help mark International Women's Day, Geoff Bertram, who leads the Allies pillar for Women in Leadership at TD, unpacks the differences between real and performative allyship, and how he's working to support the career advancement and equity of women at TD.
You don't just get to call yourself an ally. It doesn't work like that.
The title of ally is something you earn through your actions. That's the lesson someone very wise once gave me when I was early in my allyship journey.
On paper, the idea of an 'ally' in the workplace is pretty simple. An ally is loosely defined as an individual who helps empower and elevate individuals from any marginalized group.
But true allyship is not a theoretical idea, it's a practice. It’s a set of behaviours that put into action the values of inclusion, diversity and social justice. You can't just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.
Allyship can be aligned to many groups such as support for LGBTQ2+ rights, standing against anti-Black racism, and in my case, supporting the career advancement and equity of women at TD.
When it comes to the workplace, allyship is where diversity and inclusion training gets put into practice. Training alone doesn’t change behaviour. There's a crucial step between learning something and moving that new knowledge into your daily actions and behaviours.
Why it's important to have an Allies program
Okay, but why choose to have a guy like me be a lead ally for a women's employment advancement team at TD? Historically, power centres in Canada have been dominated by white, middle-aged, heterosexual men.
While I know I represent this traditional archetype, I believe it's my demographic that needs to take a leadership role in catalyzing change.
When persons within these groups demonstrate true allyship, a tipping point can occur which can have the power to shift the thinking and actions of an entire organization so that more and more colleagues in that organization start to model this behaviour. Allyship needs to be taught and modelled at the top levels of any organization. If leaders model and own their shortcomings, then their teams will feel more comfortable and confident doing the same.
So how do we get there? As an organization, you can and should offer formal training programs, but if you don’t fuse this with action targeting people's everyday behaviours, then meaningful change is more difficult to achieve. This is where my role leading the Allies pillar for WIL at TD comes in.
TD makes significant investments in D&I training to help educate colleagues about important issues like implicit bias, but allyship is a less formalized process. It needs to be modeled by the leaders within our organization during our day-to-day work experience for there to be positive change and for ideas from courses like the WIL Allies program, to start manifesting in our workplace culture.
Part of my role is having conversations with senior leadership to reinforce the importance of them modeling real allyship to their teams.
'Real' over 'performative' allyship
More recent and nuanced conversations about allyship have begun to draw distinctions between so-called 'real' allyship and 'performative' allyship.
A good way to think of 'real allyship' is the place where the rubber meets the road: actions that individuals choose to take or behaviours they change or adopt that result in tangible positive impacts for under-represented groups or individuals. There are so many ways that one can be an ally in the workplace that can help make a significant impact – such as pushing for increased diversity on your teams, countering the 'groupthink' mindset in your interactions by amplifying under-represented perspectives, or speaking up when you see or hear something that isn't consistent with TD's values and culture.
'Performative allyship', on the other hand, typically consists of actions that appear to be supportive but do not actually result in any significant change and often end up serving the individual trying to be an ally, more than the person or group of people they are hoping to help. It's easy to feel like you are part of the solution by hitting the 'like' button, and while it may be a starting point, it needs to be followed up by consistent action to really help make a difference.
Already, we can see how much the leadership landscape has changed at TD through the efforts of WIL and our deep-rooted history of promoting and supporting diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
We are making good progress. For the fifth year in a row TD was included in the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index in 2020, a recognition that acknowledges the Bank's commitment to advancing women's equality in the workplace, including helping propel women's success at every stage their career. TD also achieved its Canadian target of 40% women in senior leadership roles by 2020. However, there is work still to be done.
Becoming a real ally
When I have conversations with other leaders who want to be better allies to the women on their teams, I encourage those executives to act as mentors and sponsors for them. Be generous with your network; help to make your contacts their contacts.
Good allyship for women in the workplace means going out of your way to speak up for the good work of your female colleagues and being proactive with promoting top female talent. Whether they are in the room or not, recognize the work done by your female colleagues and build them up in front of your colleagues and executives and especially in promotion or compensation meetings.
Allyship is not only about supporting and elevating your female colleagues, it's also about speaking up against bad behaviour, including double standards. Calling out bad behavior, even when it's not overtly malicious, needs to become ingrained in workplace culture for real positive change to happen.
Finally, allyship means fostering a growth-oriented workplace culture that is safe for everyone to admit mistakes. It is not an aggressive shaming of the individual, it is about tactfully speaking out and working to course-correct behaviour to lead to better outcomes for everyone.
I believe that being a good leader begins with being a good ally. When we recognize our own shortcomings, commit to helping raise up those around us, and use our voice to speak out for the marginalized members of our team, we can build stronger organizations.