Lessons from the Open Forum: How to use advocates and allies to change structures and processes

The Advocates & Allies programme adapted by the THRIVE (Towards Hiring, Resources, Inclusion, Value, and Excellence) project at East Carolina University aims to change the institution’s structures and processes by educating privileged faculty members about equality and equity matters. At the MINDtheGEPs Open Forum on 14 December, the Advocates & Allies programme leadership shared how they implemented the programme, building a cohort of advocates and allies that were likely to bring their individual transformation to an institutional one.

Allison Danell, Stephanie George, Andrew Morehead & Kristen Myers lead the THRIVE project at East Carolina University. At the beginning of the event, Allison Danell took extra care to explain equity, which is the focus of THRIVE, in relation to MINDtheGEPs’ equality: while there are many similarities between THRIVE and MINDtheGEPs, the purpose of the Advocates & Allies programme is changing culture and processes, rather than measuring and following up key performance indicators for equality.

At the beginning of the Advocates & Allies programme, the THRIVE project issued a survey to map the needs and shortcomings of their specific environment at East Carolina University. They conducted focus group interviews to identify recurring themes and topics, many of which brought up individual situations that were problematic for women in their workplace. Some were aspects of the verbal environment that women had to endure, such as comments about what they or their bodies looked like or how they were perceived (e.g. looking young), that their achievements were not acknowledged, and that male professors could refuse doing certain types of work without many repercussions, but female professors were disproportionately admonished when rejecting those same tasks.

The mapping also identified organisational challenges. For example, bureaucratic processes that, combined with gaps in leadership, led to leaky pipelines where gender-based issues easily slipped through fingers or were pushed around with no clear responsible party.

Following the mapping process, faculty who wanted to become Advocates could apply, and were assessed through a competitive process. They participated in a two-day training with the originators of the programme, and lead the ongoing efforts of the team. Allies were recruited from groups of privileged faculty members and given a two-hour training session. Currently, East Carolina University has 8 advocates and around 50 allies who all participated in workshops on themes such as biases, micro-aggressions, and - especially appreciated by the participants - how to recognise and intervene in problematic situations.

However, the programme is not meant to create what Andrew Morehead called a ‘saviour mentality’ among the allies, where they become very prone to step in and ‘save’ women in any problematic situation. Rather, it should change structures and processes, and the allies and advocates are to be seen as everyday agents of that change. They need to understand that change will happen slowly, and the focus should be on transforming biased processes and inequities caused by culture and unconscious unequal treatment. The actions needed for these types of changes can be less tangible. Participants asked for more training on interventions, but instead, to make persisting change, what’s needed is a deeper understanding of mechanisms and data.

This leads to one interesting insight from the Advocates and Allies programme: giving allies some training can cause problems for women. If the training given is not enough, it might contribute to saviour mentality. Some allies with a newly found awareness would tend to intervene in problematic situations. But with limited knowledge, they sometimes instead made the situation worse for the woman, who felt even more exposed and would have rather dealt with it herself. The takeaway was that it is possible to incite action by providing some information, but that more training is needed for people to be able to handle problematic situations well.

Instead, the Advocates & Allies programme leadership argued for making sure that women have the support of the systems in the organization. The advocates and allies can constitute one such system, if they move beyond the notion of them as ‘white knights’. And feedback from women suggested that they too would like support and tools to be able to handle problematic situations themselves, without a man intervening.

The end of the Open Forum conversation reflected back on the beginning: the Advocates and Allies programme is a programme for equity, its purpose to change the culture and processes. But this progress is in itself a process that might take years to bear fruit. The THRIVE leadership likened the Advocates & Allies trainings to vaccinations, and with an iterative approach and learning from the obstacles they faced so far, hopefully each new dose will strengthen both equity and equality at East Carolina University.

Watch the Open Forum on leveraging privilege on YouTube

By Marika Ljungberg


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MINDtheGEPs (Modifying Institutions by Developing Gender Equality Plans) has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no 101006543.

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