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Keynote Speaker at Leadership Forum Says Effective Allies Vital in Fight for Diversity and Inclusion

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jan 29, 2020

Melinda Briana Epler, keynote speaker at the Foundation for Accounting Education's Women's Leadership Forum on Jan. 29, explained how everyone has a role in the fight for diversity and inclusion in their workplaces, as effective allies are a key part of the process.

Epler, the founder and CEO of advocacy and consulting firm Change Catalyst, used her own experiences to illustrate that even if a job is great in all other aspects, a lack of support and respect with regard to diversity can erode one's enthusiasm and effectiveness. She said that, in 2013, she was working at what should have been her dream job, but "little behaviors and patterns that slowly chipped away at my ability, that ate away at my confidence, at my leadership, at my capacity to innovate," made it "the worst professional experience of my life." This, she said, ultimately prompted her to launch her own firm and advise companies on how they can improve their own diversity and inclusion practices. 

For Epler, diversity is bringing people with different backgrounds to the table, but she added that "it's not enough to [just] be at the table." This is why inclusion, which is inviting these people to speak and encouraging them to lead, is a vital factor as well, But, she added, "that's not enough either," as she said that both must ultimately be within the frame of equity, the correction of injustice and unfairness, while addressing historical privilege and oppression. She conceded that while it's tempting to think of these efforts as some sort of side project HR initiative, "it really is a systemic issue, and it's you and me working together, creating change one person at a time, one act at a time, one word at a time." 

"It takes all of us working together, working on ourselves, on our own biases, and working to create change," she said. 

This is why Epler believes that allyship—understanding the imbalance in opportunities and using one's own privilege to change it—is crucial. Real change needs to work on the cultural level, and that doesn't happen until "a critical mass of allies" develops, she said.

Part of being an effective ally, according to Epler, is being engaged with people as they speak. Especially when the speaker is the only person like you in the room, giving that person your full attention can make a big difference, as is making it a point not to interrupt, said Epler, who explained that marginalized people are interrupted more often than other people. 

She also encouraged those seeking to be effective allies to echo and attribute good ideas voiced by marginalized people. Too often, someone like a woman or a person of color will bring up a good idea that gets ignored or put aside, and then a few minutes later, someone else brings up a very similar idea, and now it winds up being championed. An easy way to address this situation, she said, is to echo the first person's idea and attribute it to that person. 

Another major component is learning the language that people use to describe aspects of their own identity, such as their race, ethnicity, religion, or even name. While these might seem like small matters, attending to them sends a signal that you're willing to take these things seriously and approach them on their own terms. Part of this learning will necessarily include going outside of your own comfort zone every once in a while, such as attending an event or seeing a speaker geared for an audience that's not you, as "that type of learning and growth can make a big difference in how you show up for other people, because it builds up those empathy muscles and understanding." 

Epler also said that effective allies can advocate in small ways by setting up people from marginalized groups for a better success. If someone is the target of prejudice, even casually, or if someone is being bullied or excluded, she said there are many opportunities for effective allies to intervene on their behalf. Effective allies can also leverage their own connections to help, such as inviting people to speak who may not normally get to do so, or referring people for jobs or leadership opportunities. 

It's not always easy to tell how something is affecting someone. Epler said to be aware of body languages, particularly poses. She noted that when people experience harassment or bullying or are unfairly stereotyped, they tend to shrink into what she said was a low-power pose, such as slouching or looking down, and she advised that audience members be aware of the body language of others to see the effect that such demeaning behavior is having on them. 

She said that being an effective ally can sometimes be difficult and even at times risky, which can make people hesitant to support their colleagues. In such cases, she said, it's important to keep in mind why being an ally is important, and letting that guide your actions. 

"It's different for everyone," she said. "For some people, it's about the money: The fact is that diverse and inclusive teams are more productive, more profitable, more innovative. For others, it's a social justice issue; it's the right thing to do to correct injustice and inequities. It could be for your kids or their kids or grandkids, for sons or daughters or nonbinary children, for our collective future. For me, it's all of these above, but you need to figure out what it is for you, so when you take these risks, you have this extra motivation internally."