The Greatest Lessons in Allyship Came From My Mother

The Greatest Lessons in Allyship Came From My Mother

by Dr. John Izzo, co-founder of Blueprint, an NGO dedicated to changing the culture of men and boys

I grew up in New York City where I was raised by a hard-working single mother named Irene. While Irene didn’t earn much, especially compared with the men who worked in the same accounting firm, she was determined to give me everything she could, and she challenged me to reach for my dreams.

I’ve been fortunate to have a blessed life. I enjoy a career doing what I love – connecting people with their highest purpose in life – as a bestselling author and business coach. I’m also an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia where I co-founded an NGO called Blueprint, which challenges men to live with integrity and intention, which I believe is paramount to maintaining personal well-being and building healthy communities. I’m lucky to have some great people in my life – an amazing spouse, and friends that I treasure. Do you know why these people are so great? Because they constantly challenge me to be the best version of myself, just like my mother did.

When I think back on every lesson my mother Irene gave me, the biggest one was about being an ally to others. She set a striking example for me when I was a boy, championing the civil rights movement being led by Dr. Martin Luther King, and standing up to racists and bigots whenever she encountered them. She was the first one in our 1960s white, working-class borough to openly welcome the new neighbors, who were people of color. She taught me to get to know others, and in her matter-of-fact New Yorker manner, schooled me in being aware of unconscious bias, long before that term was invented. Walk in someone’s shoes,” she would say, “before you judge them.” 

Never a complainer during her working life, my mother Irene later reflected on her working life in New York during the Mad Men era. It was terrible for a woman. She said, “This is just the way it has always been. When a woman tries to get ahead, they try to beat her down while the men can do whatever they want and get away with it. I am so sick and tired of it.” Over the next few hours, for the first time, my mother told me things she had put up with all those years ago as a woman in a man’s world-the unwanted advances, the comments, the subtle put downs, the promotions never given. I was embarrassed. As a man, I really had no idea how hard it had been for my own mother, along with millions of other women in the world who worked hard to provide for their children.

Perhaps, that is why there was a lot of personal interest for me to lead a major study by Blueprint at the University of British Columbia that explores how movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have changed the workplace in America. I was particularly interested in whether men’s attitudes and behaviors were changing and if men were moving towards becoming true champions for equity and inclusion. What we discovered was heartening and offered insight into how we can make even more progress.

The study involved focus groups with men and women in senior leadership positions plus wide quantitative surveys across Canada and the US. We explored a range of topics related to gender equity, relationships between genders, perceptions of equity and inclusion behaviors before and after these movements as well as attitudes towards being allies for many historically disadvantaged groups. You can read the full report here but it’s interesting to focus on what we learned about men’s attitudes and behaviors following these movements and what it says about where we go from here.

First, the good news is that men have in fact changed and not just by their own self-report, but as perceived by their female colleagues. While it is clear we have more progress to make, men report being more likely to speak out for gender equity, challenge inappropriate behavior, and express a strong commitment to pay equity and report a growing personal commitment to be allies for women, people of all races and ethnicities, and the LGBTQIA+ community. Men in leadership are more likely to sponsor or advocate for women at work than before these movements. While men think they have changed more than women think that men have changed, all genders agree we have made real progress. Even more encouraging is that while all generations agree that younger workers are more engaged on inclusion issues than older workers, it turns out that their attitudes and perceived behaviors aren’t significantly different. The progress men are making crosses generations.

Men in the focus groups told me they wanted to be part of the equity conversation and they wanted to be better allies, but didn’t know how. And men were becoming more aware of the struggles that other people faced. A lot of men had the “I really had no idea” reaction that I had to my own mother’s reflections of working with Mad Men.

Clearly, we need men to hear the experiences of other genders and other races. We also need to create safe places for men to talk about their own challenges navigating workplace culture today. We need to build empathy and allyship in new ways.

If we are going to make greater progress and want to see lasting change, we will need for men to keep listening while creating opportunities for them to talk about their own struggles as men. Come on guys, let’s be allies in a way that would make our mothers proud.