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How To Be An Ally and Elevate New Voices

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

According to the National Association of Women in Construction, the number of women in construction is at 10.9% as of 2020, which is a 1% increase from data gathered in 2019. Reaching 10% is something to celebrate, until you realize that this number, along with the representation of African Americans in construction, have both hovered at 9-10% over the last 25 years.

When focusing on these numbers, we’re missing out on the big picture. Women and minorities may be entering the construction industry workforce, but they’re not staying and they’re not getting promoted. The work doesn’t stop at attraction, in fact, it’s only the beginning.

We’re starting to have the conversations that need to happen. If we say that construction provides tons of opportunity for advancement and career growth, then why don’t we have more women and minorities at the leadership level? Clearly, the idea that hard work is recognized and rewarded isn’t true for all people, and it’s time that construction confronts its deep-seeded conscious and unconscious biases.


In CPC’s latest Inclusion and Diversity (I&D) Roundtable, titled 'How to be an Ally", we engaged in uncomfortable conversations, looking for clear lessons learned out of our shared pains. As we uncovered some of the challenging aspects of speaking to power and challenging the status quo, the concept of allyship emerged as a method of taking action to remove barriers for women and minorities in construction. The panel brought together leaders from across the construction industry, including Alison Hart, Project Solutions Manager at Mortenson Construction, Brent Darnell of Brent Darnell International, and Dr. Giovanna Brasfield, CEO of Brasfield & Associates. Our goal was to define how allyship shows up in the construction industry and discuss how we can all take action against bias starting today.

Defining an “Ally”:

An ally is someone who takes action to support an underrepresented or marginalized group but does not identify as a member of that group themselves.

Everyone has the opportunity to be an ally for members of any underrepresented or marginalized group — those defined by racial identity, gender identity, disability, nationality, socioeconomic status, faith identity, or sexual orientation, for example.

As Dr. G said, “With allyship, you're unlearning what you've learned, in essence, because you're thinking about things differently.” Allyship is diving from the safe space of the status quo into a brave space. It’s stepping out of your comfort zone to consider how things may be different from the perspective of an underrepresented individual or group.

Overcoming the Fear of “making a mistake”

In the roundtable, we talked about how being an ally often starts with simply holding space for new conversations. Alison posed this question to the group: “How do you change yourself to demonstrate to others that it’s okay to be vulnerable and speak up?”

A lot of the fear of vulnerability in construction is rooted in the way that the industry culture values toughness. Brent spoke from his own experience on a big barrier that stands in the way of starting important conversations: fear of making a mistake.

“There’s been decade after decade of a hyper-masculine work environment where you can't be vulnerable, and you can't ask for help, and you can't make mistakes. Us white, middle-aged guys understand that we’re part of the problem, and we want to be part of the solution — but many are so afraid to make a mistake that they're holding back.”

“It's about opening up that discussion and seeing that inclusivity, diversity, belonging all tie back into health and safety, mental health and suicide prevention,” he said, emphasizing the importance of overcoming the hesitancy.

The learning curve and the messy middle

Plenty of people have the intention behind wanting to be an ally, but they may not know where to start.

We likened it to adopting a new construction technology. At the outset, you might have a situation where everyone is excited and buy-in is high. But then you have to actually integrate the solution. You realize that it’s hard.

The book The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture by Scott Belsky explores this issue. In a lot of cases, this middle section is when things get the most challenging. You might be in a trough of disillusionment, and your colleagues might be, too.

We don’t necessarily have a solution for this messy middle other than continuing to push through. It’s important to keep that in mind, and to be gentle to yourself and others as we figure out how to show up as allies and make meaningful change.

What allyship looks like

So, how do we strengthen our allyship and encourage others into it? Dr. G said, “Learning has to happen when we're talking about developing allies. It's learning: how does the marginalized community want to interact? How do they want to be perceived? It's information-sharing and building because you get to see their perspective.”

We called out the importance of learning to recognize and challenge our unconscious biases. We also suggested intentional training in this area, both for leaders and employees.

Ultimately, Alison said, a lot of the onus for allyship falls to leaders. “They need to really walk the walk and talk the talk. If they can bake allyship into their culture, then it helps move these conversations along.”

It’s helpful to consider the continuum of becoming an inclusive leader:

  • Phase 1: Unaware

There is no accountability around actions that could cause offense or leave others feeling disenfranchised.

  • Phase 2: Aware

Get called up, called out, or self-actualize around the actions that are not acceptable. Common to get stuck here.

  • Phase 3: Active

Pausing, getting curious, and taking the time to understand where offense has been caused. Listen to others' experiences and take action to implement what’s been learned. In many cases, this manifests as an apology.

  • Phase 4: Advocate

Lead with empathy to continue taking action and encourage others to do the same.

This framework emphasizes that the work of becoming an inclusive leader is an ongoing process, and getting involved means taking the steps beyond self-recognition, as Dr. G explained, “it looks like intentional action, taking the initial steps to advocate for those marginalized or underrepresented communities.”

As Brent added, “You’ve got to have some skin in the game. It's really easy to just advocate. But when you're giving up something that's precious to you, that’s a true ally. And I believe that we're starting to see more of that. We're starting to see men, especially the white men in this industry, step aside, lift people up, bring them forward, and allow them to thrive.”

Skin in the game sometimes means leveraging your political capital to promote a deserving colleague or employee from a marginalized or minority group. It also means stepping into uncomfortable conversations to “call people up” when you witness bias in action.

“There's that fear of giving up power,” Brent said, “but there's also the alternative of that. The other side of that is creating a legacy, being able to be a leader and create that space.”

This is what leadership looks like, creating space for these conversations by entering the “messy middle” where we often risk being misunderstood in our aims to better understand. Where we look to step into uncomfortable spaces in order to progress beyond the status quo. Not unlike the challenges we face in disrupting business with the implementation of technology, we’re addressing the “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality, that has allowed construction to remain complacent while losing women and minorities to other industries. Leadership has the opportunity to make real progress, address discriminating policies, modernize hiring and promoting processes and most importantly, promote those within their ranks into leadership roles.

If you’re a leader, ask yourself, who could I be an ally for? Who have I overlooked when considering promotions, succession plans and pathways to senior leadership roles. And start to take action by being willing to engage, listen and learn from those in the minority within your ranks. There is support for you as you embark on this journey. Take AGCs Culture of Care pledge or learn what it means to be an ally in Procore’s Guide to Allyship.

And most importantly, hear from peers in industry discuss their journey and experiences in this roundtable. Watch the full recording here.

And if you want to dig deeper into topics like these, check out our full discussion on YouTube and join us for a future CPC roundtable!


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