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Allyship: Why We Need to Work Together to Bring About Real Change

Allyship: Why We Need to Work Together to Bring About Real Change

One of the largest engineering consultancies in the world, Atkins, is doing a lot to combat the perception that engineering and construction are culturally exclusive professions.

‘allyship’ is an important part of making change happen.

Allyship: it’s a term that has emerged from obscurity, spreading from niche to mainstream, from campus to boardroom. It essentially means supporting change alongside individuals who have historically experienced exclusion and/or under-representation.

The pandemic and the events of 2020 have caused social upheavals and reflections, which have sparked introspective and open boardroom discussions. How can businesses that desire positive change cultivate a culture that does so?

It is both a moral requirement and has significant business ramifications. According to the Career Deflection Report, which Atkins and the Institute for Employment Studies commissioned in 2021, our entire industry is losing talent because underrepresented groups are not engaged.

One in ten female engineers between the ages of 20 and 34 leave the field each year to work elsewhere. Ethnic minorities have a 16% higher exit rate from engineering than their white counterparts.

The causes are complex, but the consequences are clear: less diversity at the leadership level. In turn, this perpetuates the problems that lead to women and ethnic minorities leaving the industry and some people, such as disabled people, struggling to enter the workplace in the first place.

A lack of role models, a business culture lacking diversity of perceptive, and a dearth of resources and opportunities prompts affected individuals to either not enter the industry or to change industries.

For various reasons, engineering has historically been a predominantly male pursuit, but only in relatively recent times are the effects of a lack of diversity being properly explored and understood.

User-first, or user-second?

Our sector is at a turning point. We are gradually realising that all of our infrastructure, designs, and services must be user-centered if they are to have long-term value. In the past, the end user was typically only taken into account (if at all) after the more utilitarian decisions had been made. As a result, there was little room for meaningful change and little opportunity for the insights of diverse viewpoints. The user is now at the forefront of our design processes.

Making services more user-centric is essential for enhancing our industry's growth and success, according to numerous industry bodies, institutions, and authoritative reports. But for this to be effective, allyship must go beyond words and become ingrained in everything we do.

If we are serious about user-centric design, it’s clear that design must be reflective of – and influenced by – a true representation of our society.

The annals of design are littered with examples that demonstrate how values, biases, and prejudices can unconsciously shape our buildings, our streets, and our public services.

To avoid locking-in bias into the next generation of infrastructure, we must first start to listen to those who have historically been excluded and under-represented in what we do. We must get better at understanding people’s diverse lived experiences.

Seen and heard

Allyship can be beneficial if it is facilitated from the top down. When used effectively, it's an essential part of an inclusive culture that enables employees to have crucial workplace discussions. Recognition of the issue—that prejudice, bias, and unintentional behaviours are still too common in our field and society at large—is the first step in becoming an ally.

Equal opportunities must be available to all for our society to be more equitable; otherwise, differences widen, conflicts intensify, and the likelihood of building strong communities decreases.

For too long, prejudice and unconscious bias have served as daily obstacles to being truly accepted, included, and welcomed at work, placing an unfair burden on under-represented and historically excluded groups.

Often these biases were so hidden and implicit, that they were overlooked – except by those impacted by their consequences.  All to-often, for example, members of ethnic minorities have avoided speaking out in their workplaces, not wanting to be perceived as a ‘trouble-maker’.

We are now witnessing a powerful and profound time of reflection within society and within our industry. Those who have experienced racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and all other kinds of prejudice and abuse are finding opportunities to be heard. Allyship is about taking the time and space to listen to one another and consistently and actively promoting diverse participation to bring about effective change.

These conversations, by their nature, are not easy.

All participants may experience discomfort, guilt, shame, anger, and fears of being misunderstood. Not achieving uniformity is the goal. In the context of respect for one another, it must also make room for diversity of thought and opinion. All employees can have a place to speak up, be heard, and listen attentively by creating safe spaces, providing one another with support, and receiving friendly guidance. This prevents the conflict, ignorance, and shame that can cause these cycles of bias and mistrust from occurring in the future.

Inclusivity includes difference

Allyship is a statement that you care about enacting constructive change and working to promote candour and openness in the workplace. By putting it into practise, we are more likely to achieve long-lasting acceptance of diversity in our communities, structures, and designs, but only through persistent, unceasing effort.

Possessing an inclusive culture is essential for cultivating allyship. Everyone is unique, and inclusive cultures value and celebrate these differences. It involves recognising differences while also establishing shared moral principles such as decency and honesty.

Everyone is much more likely to feel confident enough to collaborate with others on genuine projects when they are made to feel seen, respected, and understood, without worrying about being misunderstood, ignored, or rejected.

It may have a significant effect on employee retention. Management consulting firm Deloitte found that eight out of ten engineers said that feeling included at work increased their motivation in their 2018 report, "The Diversity and Inclusion Revolution." Almost seven out of ten people said their overall performance improved, and half said their engagement increased.

Top down, top marks

Leadership is ultimately responsible for fostering a climate of security, acceptance, and openness. Senior leaders can make it easier for their staff to be themselves at work by cultivating inclusivity, embracing diversity, and recognising differences.

Authenticity is not a luxury, but rather a crucial component of mental health both at work and elsewhere. A person is much less likely to connect with their coworkers, their job, and ultimately their company if they don't feel like they can be authentically themselves around others. When you're not at your best, it's difficult to produce your best work.

The leaders of our industry have a huge opportunity to create change: for both individuals who have experienced marginalisation, and for the industry as a whole. Leaders can choose to truly invest in their staff.

They can choose to create workplaces that genuinely reflect society. And they can choose to foster an atmosphere of inclusivity and openness, where people can be seen for who they really are. Together these changes can heal divisions, improve relations within the office, and lead to better teamwork: all of which diversifies recruitment outcomes, improves retention and boosts morale.

But it all starts with the willingness to have candid conversations. And that’s what allyship is all about – which is why it should be fostered within leadership and within workforce teams.