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The anniversary of COVID-19 and the growing importance of allyship

April 08, 2021

By Cassandra Dula L’21 MS’21

The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a global pandemic over a year ago, and now we enter another year of uncertainty. Despite the length of the pandemic, very little has been done to address the disparate impact it has had on women, specifically women of intersectional identity in the workplace.

Cassandra Dula L'21 MS'21Cassandra Dula L'21 MS'21In Fall 2020, Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership Rangita de Silva de Alwis’ “Women, Law, and Leadership” course at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School interviewed over 65 male law students and 40 legal and business leaders to ask about gender bias and allyship in the workplace. We believe that the results of this study are more important now than ever, as we see women, and particularly women of color, being more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during COVID-19. Additionally, over 25% of women are now considering either downshifting in their work or leaving the workforce entirely.

Allyship study data set

This allyship study interviewed 92 men, 67 of whom were law students and the rest of whom were legal professionals. 100% of respondents stated that they had taken some kind of concrete action to qualify as an ally, and so we consider this sample a group of specifically male allies.

Over 89% of interviewees talked about how implicit, systemic, and structural biases exist, and most of these interviewees also discussed potential ideas for how to counter these kinds of subtle bias in the workplace. This is a positive indication that male allies in law school and the legal profession understand how gender bias has shifted over time.

Just under 87% of our total interviewees stated that they had witnessed a woman being sidelined in the workplace firsthand. Specifically looking at student interviewees, this number goes up to 91%, indicating that this next generation of legal professionals are either getting better at recognizing when women are overlooked, or that subtle bias is actually now more insidious in the workplace. Despite this, not all of the interviewees who have seen this behavior stated that they had taken immediate action to counter the behavior of their colleagues, which makes clear that there is still work to be done.

Personal stories of male peer allies

Quotes pulled from our interviews with male peer allies specifically, indicated a nuanced understanding of what allyship and gender bias looks like today. As one male student so accurately summed up, “Allyship is defined as … being aware of the discrimination, both individual and systemic, that holds women and BIPOC [Black, indigenous, and people of color] back … being aware of your own privilege, implicit biases, and how the white patriarchy environment shapes and limits your actions; and … actively working to empower women and BIPOC.”

Our male interviewees highlighted some of the most common ways women are mistreated in the workplace, including not being given credit (“freeloading is very common”), pigeonholing women into certain positions (“[w]e need to stop relegating WOC to typical ‘Chief Diversity Officer’”), and physically excluding women from the table (“I feel it’s important to be like: ‘Oh, come sit down’”).

This study, in partnership with Thomas Reutoers, was profoundly important in order to better understand the ways in which male allies view and think about gender bias and allyship in the workplace. While we are optimistic about the number of allies — specifically law students — who were able to point out and articulate the various ways in which women are sidelined in the workplace, we hope that allyship will help identify subtle and impervious forms of gender bias in a way that lead to more concrete action being taken. This kind of concrete action by male allies will be more important now than ever before, as women navigate the increased demands of work, home life, and the COVID-19 pandemic.