Alvin Pilobello is a Leadership Coach and Trainer for technology company executive teams, and engineering professionals. He spent 10+ years in infrastructure engineering with global engineering consulting firms and led the Water Environment Federation’s student and young professional programming across the USA and Canada. His life mission is to create more compassion between people in the world.
Interview by Denise Young, WIL National Diversity and Inclusion Advisor and CEO and Consultant of Tiger’s Eye Advisory Group.
This week I met Alvin Pilobello at Staples Studio in Kelowna, BC and we had a great conversation about allyship. Alvin is an advocate of supporting gender equity in the workplace, specifically in technology and engineering. This week, I thought it would be interesting to look into allyship from a male perspective and what it means in the technology and engineering industry.
I asked Alvin why he is an advocate for women and other under-privileged voices. “My parents strived to make a living in the middle of the Philippine people's revolution against dictatorship in the 1980s, and the Middle East Gulf War in the 1990s. Workplace discrimination was a reality in both their work lives, whether my mother earning respect as a female engineer, or my father earning respect as an Asian engineer in a hierarchical corporate culture. Through their mix of successes and suppressed opportunities, I grew up hearing stories of instances of allyship and lack of allyship, and how their voices were amplified or extinguished depending on the situation. My motivation is to help foster skills of allyship with anyone wishing to share the slices of privilege they have in their world, to elevate the under-privileged voices whose talents and humanity are not sufficiently acknowledged due to pre-determined physical, racial, or gender identities”.
Allyship is a critical component to creating equitable workplace cultures because it actively creates opportunities for people to share privilege, voice individuals' needs, and create stronger working relationships between people who think differently, and have diverse backgrounds and experiences. Not only is it the compassionate, human thing to do, having meaningful conversations around our diverse perspectives creates a culture of innovation, where psychological safety is established for people to feel safe to share and show up as themselves. The conversations that result in collaborative allyship are transferable to any team or organization that strives to be high-performing and engaging.
Most engineering firms are male-dominated, in management, shareholding, and in the C-suite. Alvin attended a panel discussion held by the Society of Women Engineers’ Toronto where women engineers shared their stories of success and the extra layers of challenges that women typically face in the engineering industry. As one of a handful of men in the audience, Alvin was there as an ally to learn more about the challenges women face in the workplace and what he could do to support them.
So what is Alvin’s vision for allyship? Alvin stated, “I am determined to promote a culture of inclusion in the engineering industry for women. I renewed my resolve to help create a more equitable, equal, and harassment-free workplace environment. I realized that anyone with privilege can be an ally for those who don’t have that privilege”.
I shared with Alvin that I had a boss who chose to not listen to me and would overlook my ideas, yet if another male colleague mentioned the same idea, my boss would listen. I thought it was because I was a bad communicator or I wasn’t speaking loud enough. Another male colleague “amplified” my voice and validated my ideas by publicly acknowledging my idea by saying “I agree with Denise ''. Despite being frustrated with my boss, I did appreciate the support.
I asked Alvin what types of actions he is doing to promote allyship to support women and other underprivileged groups.“Active allyship isn’t just words of encouragement, pinning a ribbon, or holding one’s forearms in an equal sign on “Happy International Women’s Day” on Twitter. It is rooted in action”. Action comes in various forms: Building self-awareness on how our biases impact our behaviours at work, establishing a trusting line of communication with the colleagues we want to be allies to, and collaborating on workplace allyship actions that are helpful for them specifically. There is no one-size fits all approach, or checklist of items; it depends on each individual we want to be an ally for. Here are three actions that Alvin suggests which is based on a previous article he co-authored with Elaine Samuel who is co-founder of EngGirlProblems and President-elect of Society for Women Engineers' Toronto (SWE).
Action 1: Check your Assumptions
Allyship actions can be very visible (supporting someone publicly), or less visible (sponsoring their promotion in an upper level meeting). Most importantly, what it really needs to be is effective.
Start by asking what your assumptions are on what will help the person(s) you are being an ally to? Ask them what ‘help’ might be helpful for them. Would they prefer that you publicly support the idea? Or, is it to act as their sponsor for their promotion or equal compensation / responsibilities in high-level leadership meetings that they are not privy to?
You can turn every assumption into an inquiry - ask them what they think and know about the situation or problem, and then most importantly, actually listen and withhold judgement. This is the best practice to avoid accidentally, or worse, intentionally “mansplain” which is “(of a man) explaining (something) to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing”. Check whether someone needs or wants you to explain anything to them.
Alvin shared that sometimes his need to prove his subject matter knowledge has sometimes been construed as mansplaining. He explained that the intent was not gender biased, but he needed to accept that he had minimized their expertise, and the impact felt like it was mansplaining. I apologized, and I made a note to manage myself more effectively, using WAIT (why am I talking?). WAIT was my way to curb my reinforced tendency as the subject matter expert, the engineer being paid to get things right. I had to let go of being “Right”, in order to foster a relationship of trust. There is nothing more disempowering than to underestimate someone else’s expertise, status, and needs.
When all else fails, ask. And then, Listen, Listen, Listen.
Action #2: Establish trusting lines of communication with the person or group that you’re wanting to be an ally for.
From this important article on the Feminuity blog (link here), “ally” is not an identity to claim. Allyship is an on-going practice of supportive actions. You are an ally only to the person who acknowledges that your allyship actions were effective for, but everyone’s allyship support needs may look different.
“If you want to be a good ally, you have to go into the spaces where marginalized groups get together, so that you can learn how to best help.” This lesson came from Sharon Barney, a Diversity & Inclusion expert, with 20+ years owning and operating construction companies.
Privilege is when we don’t even see it as an issue,
and as allies, we may be initially blind to this privilege.
Action #3: Do the (Self)-Work
As a leadership coach, Alvin observed that people over-estimate their self-awareness, himself included. Humans are generally not accurate at estimating their impact and effectiveness, often over-indexing on either end of the confidence spectrum. Our ability to regulate our emotional, reactive tendencies, and to slow down to choose more intentionally, is a muscle that requires self-work.
Effective, evolving allyship involves each individual knowing the limits of their perspectives (e.g. actively exploring their blindspots) and works collaboratively with the people that they are supporting. Alvin’s self-awareness journey involved speaking with mental health professionals, because he was concerned about recurring insecure behaviours, including needing to be validated to be right. He wanted to understand “how did my need to dominate others, to be seen as an intelligent, high-achieving man, also disempower those around me?”
Everyone has biases, insecurities, and traumas - how well we know how they show up at work, can be powerful to understanding how to become the best ally you can be. The challenge is to figure out which actions create meaningful, collaborative, productive professional connections, vs. combative, unproductive, harmful work environments and interactions.
Alvin suggested the following tactics of how he can influence other men to recognize their privilege, and use it:
● To center and amplify women’s ideas and voices;
● To address structural inequities such as the promotion and pay gap;
● To advocate for the active consultation of women, especially if they are not directly involved in high-level decision making that impacts all employees
● To be a mentor and sponsor to women.
Being an ally is not only for men to advocate and improve the workplace for women in engineering and other industries. Allyship requires mindset shifts and active choices that can be taken by white, men, and women, to improve environments for racialized engineers and other workers in engineering and other workplaces. We do not have to wait for the C-suite to act to make the workplace a more equitable space for women and Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). Like the conversations we are having about the global pandemic and civil rights movements of today, we will need all hands on deck.
Connect with Alvin on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alvinpilobello/
Article written by Denise Young, WIL National Diversity and Inclusion Advisor and is a consultant and educator for Tiger’s Eye Advisory Group.