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Melinda Epler

Become a Better Ally

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How One person, one act, and one word at a time bring about change.

Melinda Epler is a force within the tech industry, using her background in storytelling and large-scale cultural shifts to strategically advise tech companies and governments around the world. In a June 2018 TedXTalk, Ms. Epler presented 3 tips to become a better ally to marginalized groups in the workplace, nurturing those brilliant individuals to grow as employees and as people.

In 2013, Ms. Epler explained that she was an executive at an international engineering firm. Her dream job, she explains: “I was creating real change in the world. And it was the worst professional experience of my life.” Little behaviors, little patterns, and little issues slowly wore away at Ms. Epler’s confidence, limiting her ability to work well. One situation she recalls in detail involved presenting a major project to her colleagues. The moment she began to speak, fellow executives picked up their cell phones and checked their laptops. Interruptions echoed out and people spoke over her repeatedly. Ideas introduced by Epler were swiftly dismissed, only to be applauded when re-introduced by someone else. “I was the only woman in that room,” she explained. “And I could have used an ally.”

Microaggressions become a Major Problem

Little behaviors and patterns in a workplace, when encountered daily, can wear you down. Microaggressions are defined as everyday slights, insults, negative verbal and nonverbal communication, whether intentional or not, that impede your ability to do your work well. That sounded familiar to Epler: “The culture around me was failing me. And I wasn’t alone.”

Behaviors and patterns like microaggressions tend to affect those underrepresented people of all background in the workplace, affecting colleagues and companies and the collective capacity to innovate. While tech industries tend to aspire toward quick solutions, there is no quick-fix for diversity and inclusion.

“Change happens one person at a time, one act at a time, one word at a time,” said Epler.

The path to change? It begins by treating diversity and inclusion as more than a ‘side project,’ according to Epler. It is a project that needs effort from everyone, beginning by unlearning what we have been taught about opportunity, hard work, and success because some people have to work ten times as hard to get to the same place due to the barriers placed on them by society.

That’s where allyship comes in.

Allyship: An Imbalance in Opportunity

Epler defines allyship as “understanding that imbalance in opportunity and working to correct it. Alyship is really seeing the person next to us. And the person missing, who should be standing next to us.”

Who is an ally? According to Epler, all of us. Speaking from personal experience, she recognized her own privilege as a white, cisgendered woman in the United States. In the tech industry, she recognizes that “women, people who are nonbinary… racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA, people with disabilities, veterans, anybody over age 35” are underrepresented or face barriers and discrimination.

3 Steps to Allyship

The first step to becoming an ally, according to Epler, is to start by doing no harm. “It’s our job as allies to know what microaggressions are and to not do them,” she explained. Give coworkers your full attention. Close your laptop, put away cellphones, and pay attention. Don’t interrupt. Listen. Echo and attribute. If you hear a great idea, echo it while ensuring it is attributed to the original speaker.

The second step that Epler recommends is to begin by advocating for underrepresented groups in small ways. You have the power to intervene and shift the power dynamics of a room. Recognize when someone is the only person in the room like them and, if they are being belittled or interrupted, do something or say something. Whether it’s inviting underrepresented people to speak or referring someone for a job and encouraging them to take that job, you have the opportunity to advocate. Most importantly in advocating and the road to allyship, Epler says, “help normalize allyship. If you’re a person with privilege, it’s easier for you to advocate for allies. So use that privilege to create change.”

The third step for allyship is to “be there for somebody throughout their career,” Epler says. Whether through mentorship or sponsorship, providing opportunities to an underrepresented individual increases their potential for growth. Transformations and cultural shifts within your team, and holding your group accountable for implementing more diverse and inclusive policies toward change, will create a positive work environment full of cohesive opinions that, while varied, are valued when collaboration takes place.

Epler’s last tip is the help advocate for change and allyship across your company. “When companies teach their people to be allies,” she explains, “diversity and inclusion programs are stronger. You and I can be allies for each other, whether we’re inside or outside of work.”

“When we’re there for each other, when we support one another, we thrive together. And when we thrive, we build better teams, better products, and better companies. Allyship is powerful. Try it” – Melinda Epler

This article was written using Melinda Epler’s June 2018 TedXTalk. To view her talk in its entirety, click here.

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