AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center Webcast: How to Be an Ally

Published: Sep 01, 2020



On August 20th, a diversity and inclusion (D&I)–themed webcast about how allies can help ensure the success of organizations’ D&I initiatives was presented by the AMA Women’s Leadership Center (WLC). Lauren McNally, Director of WLC, was presenter of the program, titled How to Be an Ally. Allison Yashay, AMA Marketing and Membership Associate, was the program’s moderator.

After briefly talking about WLC’s mission of preparing professional women for advancement through community and meaningful education, and AMA’s 95 years of experience as a global leader in talent development, Ms. McNally invited listeners to participate in a poll about diversity and inclusion in their organizations.

When asked whether their organizations had a D&I policy in place, about 71% said yes, 12% said no and 17% said they weren’t sure. In addition, 37% of the webcast’s participants whose organizations have a D&I initiative said that they were led by Human Resources or special committee (33%). Finally, of those who have D&I programs, about 41% said they felt their D&I initiative had been implemented properly, while 18% said that they weren’t and 32% weren’t sure.

The poll signaled a deeper dive into the key issue of diversity and inclusion, laying the groundwork for the central discussion on allies.

After this initial poll, McNally presented foundational information on D&I. As she explained, “Diversity is understanding that each individual is unique, and it recognizes our individual differences—including, among other things, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs or other ideologies, characteristics, or differences that each of us presents.”

She shared a definition of inclusion as “creating a welcoming environment that accepts each individual’s differences, embraces strengths, encourages involvement and provides opportunities for all to achieve their full potential.”

Understanding the scope of these concepts is fundamental to understanding the need for allies, who actively support organizational D&I initiatives. To further set the stage, McNally also highlighted AMA’s recently conducted D&I survey, which included responses from 700 AMA Members and customers. Among the key results, when asked if they have a D&I policy in place in their organization, 66% of those surveyed said yes, 18% said no and 5% were not sure.

McNally noted that these results were similar to the live poll she had just conduced with webcast listeners.

Similarly, when participants in the AMA survey were asked whether their organization’s D&I policy was being properly implemented, 40% said yes, 31% said no and 29% said they weren’t sure.

McNally noted that the “no” and “not sure” responses were alarming. She also stated that the recent AMA survey indicated that 40% of respondents said they had been discriminated against in the workplace, while 55% said they have witnessed a co-worker being discriminated against in the workplace.

“This is exactly why we need allies,” McNally concluded. “Did the 55% do anything when they saw a co-worker being discriminated against?”

In terms of the AMA survey respondents’ answers regarding the main focus of their organization’s D&I policy, the top three areas were race, gender and orientation.

“Is there a group or several groups that are being discriminated against?” McNally asked hypothetically, going deeper into the underpinnings of these three areas. “Do you see certain groups not getting promoted as quickly as other groups? Do they not have access to the same developmental opportunities?”

Sharing the findings about bias in the AMA D&I survey results, McNally said that 92% of respondents said they were aware of the concept of unconscious bias; 72% said they have found themselves guilty of unconscious bias in the workplace; and 83% said they have witnessed unconscious bias by someone else in the workplace. “These are huge numbers,” she commented, again asking hypothetically, “If you know you’re guilty of unconscious bias, or you’ve witnessed it, are you doing anything to change your own biases, or speaking up about other peoples’ biases?”

The key takeaway from all of this data is organizations need to do more about D&I. Though a lot of work has already been done, employees recognize when their organizations are not meeting the expectations of a D&I program. Often, most people don’t recognize their own biases, or how they may act due to them. In addition, intersectionality (overlapping threats of discrimination, most commonly racism and sexism) affect people to varying degrees and can have a multiplicative effect.

In more specific terms, unconscious bias (which is sometimes used interchangeably with implicit bias) refers to the part of the mind that is inaccessible to the unconscious mind, but that nonetheless affects behavior and emotions. “We don’t realize we’re doing it,” said McNally, noting that racial bias is probably the most prevalent in this regard.

She also noted that micro-behaviors—small behaviors that can have a big impact—are also inherent in bias situations. These take many different forms, such as micro-inequities—e.g., mispronouncing someone’s name, not making eye content with the women in the room or constantly confusing someone’s ethnicity for a different one.

There is also micro-messaging, which can be subtle, unconscious and yet universally understood. It can also be either verbal or physical. Examples include not paying attention, constantly responding with sarcasm, etc. Also common is micro-aggression—behaviors that are brief, verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities. These behaviors can be exemplified when one is hostile, derogatory, negative, prejudiced or insulting to a group. They are all relatively “small things” that make people feel very uncomfortable.

Companies must encourage allyship in order to foster a more inclusive culture of belonging. “You can’t just have a check the box solution,” McNally concluded with regard to diversity and inclusion.

She then discussed some strategies to address these types of biases, recommending that one should “use self-awareness, and always watch your first thoughts. You want to use rational thought and let the power of logic override your emotional brain. Now, this could feel very, very uncomfortable, but you want to start to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s a huge step in addressing biases.”

In addition, said McNally, “You want to hit the ‘pause button,’ empathize, manage relationships, and use specific, measurable behaviors that run counter to your biases. The platinum rule here is to treat others as they want to be treated, and this will help you build trust and really strengthen your relationships in your organization.”

“Two key components of being an effective ally are understanding what empathy is, and being an active listener,” McNally explained. “Empathy is the feeling that you understand another person’s experiences and emotions and have the ability to share someone else’s feelings. It is not sympathy.” With active listening, she continued, “you’re paying full attention to the other person, avoiding biases, avoiding premature judgment and reflecting your understanding back to the other person by using paraphrasing. This is a great tool to use to let the person know, I understand and I am paying attention.

Having made the case for allies’ relationship to D&I, McNally detailed what an ally does. “An ally is a person who is committed to educating themselves and finding common ground with others,” she said, “to act when discrimination occurs, and to support, advocate for and champion others. That means you should be taking action. You can be an ally at any level. You don’t want to expect praise, but should instead consider it as a continuous journey where you keep learning.”

There can be different types of allies, including Social Justice Activists, who are focused on race and ethnicity, or support for individuals with disabilities; Immigration Activists; Allies for Religious Groups; and others. Mentors, who are more career development-focused, cultivating a one-on-one trust relationship, can also be allies. Likewise for Coaches, who focus on performance in a more structured and formal way. Similarly, allies may include Sponsors, who vocally support others from an unrepresented group, and Champions speak about these groups in high-visibility events.

Said McNally, “From an individual perspective, we want to remember that the individual already has power and a voice. What your job is as an ally is to create the space for that person to use their voice and show their power, and feel comfortable doing so.” The idea is to build trust.

The organizational benefits of D&I include, but aren’t limited to, more diverse thinking. Better ideas come forth in more abundance in a successfully diverse and inclusive environment. In addition, individuals’ families and their external networks will benefit. More and more people will feel safe and heard and have a sense of inclusivity and belonging.

McNally elaborated that all allies step in, step up when seeing wrongdoing, and take action— and report it to an appropriate authority figure. The ally also asks for the behavior to stop, explains why it isn’t appropriate and tries to educate others in order to prevent it from happening again.

Allies join and/or support organizations with people they may not be seen as similar to, become champions of employee resource groups (ERGs) if available, and are willing to have courageous conversations with others, remaining positive and open-minded, respectful and seeking to understand others. They disrupt the norm and create conversations around D&I, and while input should come at all levels in the organization, leaders need to always be involved.

“Also make sure, whatever your D&I strategy is, that it’s tied to business goals,” McNally noted.

There are strategies and tools to support those who wish to become allies. “Organizations can provide more mandatory training,” McNally said, “such as allyship training, respectful workplace training, emotional intelligence and unconscious bias training. Also communicate your culture (e.g., diverse and inclusive) on your website, as well as in your physical workspace, recruitment language and all relevant corporate language. Organizations must also make employees accountable for behavior, cultivate a culture of respect, create a formal initiative and set an example from the top.”

“From an individual perspective,” McNally continued, “treat others with respect and dignity, participate in volunteer opportunities with other team members, prioritize professional development and speak up with ideas. You want to make sure you’re continuing to learn and that you’re always asking questions.”

At this point, another brief poll was conducted, posing the question, Is your organization set up culturally as an inclusive workplace? The responses from listeners were as follows: 65% said yes, 16% said no and 19% said they were not sure.

McNally explained that a culture is characterized by a common way of life, a shared sense of history, an ability to shape behaviors and perceptions of its members, terms and concepts that are understood by everyone in the culture, and they tend to change slowly (unless everyone at all levels is committed to a change). Culture is the character and personality of your organization.

“Cultural competence is really the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across many cultures,” said McNally. “It encompasses being aware of one’s own world-view and developing positive attitudes toward cultural differences. This is key to becoming an effective ally and creating an inclusive culture.”

A final poll asked listeners whether they would feel comfortable becoming an ally. The responses: 88% yes, 2% no, 9% not sure.

McNally then illuminated the concept of belonging: “That is where workers feel secure, supported, accepted and included. A successful culture of belonging requires senior leadership buy-in and involvement, an ongoing practice of inclusion, recognition of unique talents and accomplishments, and an environment that fosters respect for openly and authentically sharing thoughts.”

How do you create space? McNally advised listeners to “create opportunities for development and conduct coaching sessions with employees. [Also] develop mentorship programs to increase networking and growth opportunities and manage meetings and allow everyone the chance to speak freely. If you see that someone is always very quiet in a meeting, or always being talked over, make sure that you’re saying (for example), ‘Sally, do you have something to say? What are your thoughts on this?’”

McNally also recommends asking employees what they would need to feel a sense of belonging, and work toward meeting those needs.

“How do you find out what people need?” she said. “You can simply ask them, create focus groups, have one-on-one conversations, or send out anonymous digital surveys. But make sure that in the end, you take action.”

Recommended Resources

The AMA seminars Finding Common Ground: How to Overcome Unconscious Bias; Diversity & Inclusion Certificate Program; Leading in a Diverse and Inclusive Culture; Emotional Intelligence Certificate Program; also, a FREE D&I Survey Results Infographic. Learn more at or download the On-Demand webcast How to Be An Ally for direct access to resource slide and links.

FREE DOWNLOAD: Strategies on Becoming an Ally. Visit to get your PDF of this helpful guide.

Call 1-800-854-4493 to learn more about how AMA can support your diversity and inclusion goals.