Inclusive Allyship

Allyship….. what is it?

Well let’s start with what it isn’t – Well it isn’t an identity- nor do we want to fall into the trap of another label. Rather it is a continuous process in which someone with privilege and power seeks to first learn about the experiences of a marginalized group of people, and then ultimately empathize with their challenges and then build relationships with that group of people.

Allyship is about bridging the gap between those with privilege and those without it. A person doesn’t need to know everything about the group they’re supporting in order to be an ally. They just need to commit to standing up for others even if it costs them a few moments of social discomfort (Teaching Social Justice, 2016).

An Active Doing

Allyship is a verb…. an active doing- a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people. It, therefore, should be seen as an evolution from I…We…Us

To be an Ally is to……

  • Take on the struggle as your own.
  • Stand up, even when you feel scared.
  • Transfer the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it.

The role of an ally includes:

  • Being able to listen and shine a spotlight on those whose voices are often unheard.
  • Recognizing your own privilege and power and using that privilege to lift others up.
  • Being aware of implicit biases you might have.
  • Supporting the group, you’re allying by letting them speak for themselves whenever possible.
  • Not expecting special recognition for being an ally, and not taking credit for the ideas of the marginalized group.

It requires braveness, vulnerability, not always getting it right but always willing to learn.

Leaders unlike me

On the 6th of November, I attended the Leaders Unlike You workshop as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

This event, hosted by Professor Kiran Trehan, University of Birmingham explored the options for working with artists to create open learning spaces and visual representation of our current situation and where we need to be. This interactive workshop, also considered how we can use creative approaches to make leadership diversity everyone’s business. This is was achieved by identity through stories, pictures, and a live performance from Birmingham-based Dragpunk.

My key takeaways from this event were:

  • The possibilities of using the arts to transform the way in which we think about leadership. The arts have an unrivalled ability to create change and transformation, challenging convention and inspiring us to see the familiar in new ways. We need to harness this ability in order to portray the everydayness of leadership in practice.
  • The importance of making space for different types of leadership. Regardless of type- the “fitting in whilst standing out“ paradox is deemed significant in the quest of legitimacy.
  • Diversity and inclusion in leadership not only matter, but  we also need to transform the way that we think about leaders and leadership and in so doing make the invisible visible by learning to work with difference.
The tech industry is no picture of equality.

Do tech accelerators have a sexism problem?

Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit are all companies that emerged out of tech accelerators. These incubators of talent have been a crucial component in turning tech start-ups into businesses that can stand on their own two feet. As well as giving needy new companies financial support and office space, they play an important role in helping them develop through mentoring.

So it’s good news that the number of accelerator programmes is set to increase in the UK, to support what is one of the world’s most dynamic start-up clusters and the most prominent start-up ecosystem in Europe. But, as this takes place, there’s a huge need to address the industry’s gender imbalance. My research into tech accelerator programmes has found many (often unwittingly) cater for men over women.

You only need to take a quick look at any accelerator participant list to see that women lack status, visibility and voice within these programmes. The US accelerator Y Combinator, for example, has invested in more than 700 start-ups (including Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit). Just 13% of these have been led by women. 

The situation in Europe is even bleaker. Some figures show that women hold a mere 5 to 10% share of accelerator programmes. This therefore begs the question as to whether accelerators offer equal access to women entrepreneurs, despite accelerators claiming to be “open to all”.

The well-rehearsed counter-argument to this imbalance is that this is merely a reflection of engineering and technology entrepreneurship – women just don’t feature prominently in the industry and the numbers in accelerator programmes reflects this. The evidence, however, indicates that within Europe women own around 15% of all science engineering and technology ventures. So, where are all the women when it comes to accelerators? Their minority status in the sector does not satisfactorily explain their absence from this important support mechanism.

Fighting stereotypes

Research I’ve carried out with my colleague Susan Marlow indicates that the absence of women is due to their perception that they are not the stereotypical accelerator candidate. This is intriguing given that it is assumed that these programmmes are free from prejudice, with the focus on the commercial potential of the venture and not the owner’s personal characteristics.

Susan Johnson, CEO of and a Y Combinator participant, said of her experience

I didn’t think I was a candidate for this world-class accelerator. I didn’t think I looked like a ‘YC founder’.

Thus, women may be opting out of accelerator programmes because of a perceived lack of fit with the predominantly male tech and start-up culture.

For those women who do overcome this problem and get onto the programmes, they often then encounter prejudice and discrimination at the hands of the old boys’ club culture of many accelerators, which can manifest in rugby and golfing outings in addition to typical “boys talk”.

‘Boys talk’ at the golf club.

Furthermore, in an attempt to blend in, women feel pressure to adopt a male persona. For example, the high tech women entrepreneurs we interviewed spoke of adopting particular gestures and dress codes in order to fit in and succeed.

Mentoring is one of the linchpins of any accelerator programme. Not only do the lack of women in accelerator programmes lead to a lack of female mentors. Our research also found that many women wanted a male mentor in order “to learn how to think like a man” – this being the perception of how to succeed in the tech industry. Thus, women’s efforts to adjust to the predominantly male culture of the tech start-up scene, leads to sexism in accelerators going unchallenged and camouflaged instead.

If we want to support the ambitions and great work being done by women entrepreneurs, we must question existing accelerator culture and what an ideal candidate looks like. Currently they only serve to reduce women’s confidence and interest in entering the programmes.

Furthermore, the lack of women within accelerator programmes results in a lack of female role models, making it challenging for a woman to imagine herself as a suitable accelerator candidate. We therefore need to continue the debate on the inclusivity of accelerator programmes as there remains a long way to go towards an equal playing field for women in the traditionally male-dominated tech and start-up industry.

Article originally posted at The Conversation