A few years ago, I was in Paris’s metro with a friend and, as we were counting the remaining stops before our destination, she told me about a horrible experience she had on the line. She was going to a bar and was supposed to meet friends at the station nearby. She arrived early and decided to wait for the others on the platform — mainly to avoid waiting outside alone at night. At the time, she thought this was the safest solution given that there was CCTV in the station and that trains were arriving with passengers on a regular basis. She had only been there for a few minutes when a group of men arrived. They started calling her, asking where she was going and if she had a phone number to share. Ignoring them at first, she tried to walk away but quickly realised that the only way out was to leave the station. As she was hesitating, they caught up with her and surrounded her. Thankfully the next train arrived at the platform just in time. She jumped in and ended up getting off at the next stop.
But there is more to the story.
When recalling that night, she told me that the most traumatic and shocking part for her was that there were actually two other people waiting on the platform. When she found herself trapped, she looked at them and could clearly see that they had seen her struggling but decided to act as if everything was normal. This is when she started truly panicking; when she realised that she would not receive any form of help.
When hearing this story, my first reaction was to blame these bystanders. But in all honesty, I tried to imagine myself standing on that platform, seeing another woman go through the torture that I had undergone many times. I could see the faces of these men, their looks and grins. And I knew exactly what would have gone through my mind. I would have been afraid to put myself in danger, especially when I was not 100% sure how I could have offered assistance. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have done anything but I can’t guarantee either that I would have done something. And I surely can’t say how long I would have stayed there debating mentally on the best thing to do while looking completely neutral on the outside. This phenomenon has a name: it’s called the bystander effect and if you need to remember anything from reading this article, it’s that there are simple ways to fight it.
So, what does it take to become an Ally?
For me, it all comes down to defining what being an Ally means. The Ally is the one that is actively helping and supporting you when you need it the most. Allies show up for others simply because they understand that, one day, they could be the person on the other side. This might sound cheesy but I genuinely think that the reason why we don’t run to others who clearly need support is not because we are cold-hearted but rather because we are afraid or self-conscious and don’t know how to help efficiently. In this sense, the best way to fight the bystander effect is to normalize helping others. And, if you arrived this far and feel that we are now bathing in an ocean of sugar and good intentions, let me be more practical.
Research has shown that group norms are the best way to predict our behaviours (1). We all value fairness, condemn violence and champion solidarity but these are personal values that don’t necessarily translate in our group norms. Indeed, another way to describe the bystander effect is to talk about the diffusion of responsibility. When we are in a group, our willingness to act up to our moral values is challenged by the urge to comply with the group norms. Hence, if no one reacts to an aggression in the street, we will be left doubting the accuracy of our perception of the situation and, for the great majority of us, shying away from action. Moreover, the bigger the amount of bystanders, the less likely we will act as the moral responsibility will be diluted between everyone. “I don’t have the most eco-friendly way of life but, to be honest, it’s not my consumption habits alone that will make the difference.” “That’s really terrible to see the discrimination faced by some groups but you know I’m not the one who created the system.” “Not all men!” … Sounds familiar? Yes. You see where this is going.
So, if we want things to be easier for everyone, we need to change the norms. More precisely, we need to normalize calling out discrimination and assisting others. And we need to feel comfortable doing it. This is the vision behind ALLY.
ALLY is a training application designed to turn bystanders into Allies by equipping them with the right knowledge and tools to support others and redirect them safely towards help. So far, we have created a training path to support people facing domestic abuse and one to combat street harassment and we foresee way more training paths to be added to ALLY in the future to cover more aspects of Allyship and inclusion — racial discrimination being a key one. But the project goes beyond training people. Creating ALLY, we wanted to open the discussion about collective responsibility and create a space for people and organisations to show up and make assisting others the norm for stillness to progressively become unthinkable.
By Julie Sane-Pezet, Co-founder of ila
Why Allyship is also needed in the workplace
The thing about harassment is that it seeps into every aspect of women’s lives, it’s not just confined to homes or public transportation, it manifests itself in the workplace too. Abuse or harassment in this sense, doesn’t discriminate; it does not matter if you are rich or poor or somewhere in between — as is evident by the 54% of women who have been harassed at work.
My first job upon graduation was at a multinational advertising firm and looking back, I admit to being one of the bystanders who looked upon harassment with a lot of stillness and a little bit of confusion. I remember my first few weeks there, I had already been ‘warned’ to ‘ignore’ the comments a particular male executive (he was white and 40+, make of it what you will) was prone to make. Every time he made a remark about how ‘blondes have more fun’ everyone would pass it off as a joke. Yes, that kind of fun. Or how he’d look at pictures of the incoming interns and rate their attractiveness. And while everyone laughed, I noticed how other women did so half-heartedly, with reluctance and almost disgust — the same way I did. Because deep down you knew it wasn’t a joke and it wasn’t even remotely funny, but because the norms had been set you piped down and got back to work.
I was 22 at the time and just getting started in my career. Who would have listened to me? Who would I have gone to? Would they have actually done something? These were the questions circling my mind. It wasn’t big enough of an issue to report to the police yet I didn’t know who to turn to inside the company. I needed… an ally. And I didn’t have one.
‘Somebody should do something about that.’ Then I realized I am somebody.
― Lily Tomlin
I love this quote by Tomlin. I think it perfectly encapsulates the idea of Allyship and the bigger theme of making a difference in the world. If you are constantly thinking that someone else is going to solve an issue, you might as well wait forever. In the case of discrimination (racial, sexual, psychological, etc) at work, you as an individual have the power to stand up for others and go from passive bystander to active ally.
Whether it’s in a corporate office environment or the shop floor of a retail store, Allyship is crucial. Yes, it’s 2021 and most companies have in place discrimination policies and procedures but more often than not it’s time-consuming and not instantly effective. That’s where the ALLY application comes in. Created to be engaging, user-friendly and easily accessible, our application makes what would otherwise be a boring yet necessary training into a practical and ready-to-implement solution. When you see harassment in real-time, you need to react in real-time and that’s exactly what ALLY equips you with.
Granted, an ally is not nor will they ever be a substitute for the police, counsellors or lawyers. However, what they are is the vital step between incident and reporting. Afterall, they are Actively Listening and Looking out for You.
By Net Supatravanij, Co-founder of ila
(1). Cf. Ponizovskiy, Vladimir et al. “Social Construction of the Value-Behavior Relation.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 10 934. 1 May. 2019, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00934
This article was written by Julie & Net, the Co-founders of ila. They started the social enterprise with a vision to combat gender-based violence by driving businesses to have an active role in the gender inequality conversation. Now, with the recent Sarah Everard case in the UK and the rising hate crimes against minorities, being a bystander to change is no longer an option. Register now to be an ALLY.