A successful diversity and inclusion program isn’t just about transforming processes—you also need to create a culture of allyship and advocacy.

“Being an ally goes way beyond just acceptance,” said Anne Marie Elder, global chief underwriting officer for Marine at AXA XL, speaking at IICF’s 2021 Inclusion in Insurance Forum in June. “The best allies are willing to educate themselves, to listen, to show up and to take action.”

Elder, who is also co-lead of AXA XL’s Pride Business Resource Group in North America, said that before joining the insurance industry, she served in the U.S. Naval Reserve at “a time when discussing gender identity was unthinkable and silenced. It placed a heavy burden on people like me.”

Noting that she only started openly talking about being gay 15 years ago after her wife had a cancer scare, Elder said she doesn’t want to see other people held back by not being able to be themselves in the workplace. “I’m really passionate about being yourself at work…I know that my openness has made me a better leader, a better employee and a better colleague. And allies play a really important role in helping LGBT employees feel comfortable about being their true selves at work, which leads to happier employees who are more productive and more likely to seek promotions.”

Elder said the best allies have three traits:

  • They listen and encourage.
  • They show up.
  • They are respectful.

“First and foremost, [allies] listen and they encourage. Some members of the LGBT community have really supportive families, and others don’t. So, having supportive colleagues at work can be a real game changer for them,” she said, adding that being supportive doesn’t have to involve “extraordinary measures.” It can simply be taking the time to listen and understand the challenges faced by your colleagues.

Strong allies also “stand up for LGBT colleagues and they show up,” Elder said. “They put the time and the work in to educate themselves about LGBT issues, and they can join an LGBT business resource group…And standing up is really important, too. The LGBT-plus community is unfortunately pretty familiar with negative comments, so encouragement can do a lot to overcome that negativity.” It also might mean speaking out against the use of inappropriate or disrespectful language when people try to pass off demeaning language as a joke, she added.

Lastly, she said, strong allies are respectful. Be respectful of other people’s gender identity—i.e., whether the individual identifies as male, female, both or neither. “Asking and correctly using somebody’s pronouns is a sign of respect. And allies, you can show your respect and support by listing your own pronouns on your email signature, and LinkedIn even has an option now for you to show your pronouns.”