Allyship is key to progress in the D&I space

Julia Hamilton MBA2023 argues that the onus to drive change should be on organisations rather than individuals


I grew up in New York City but went to college down in Washington, DC to major in law. After college I came back to New York and worked at Goldman Sachs for five and a half years. My day jobs were in the regulatory operations and risk management spaces, but I was also heavily involved in our LGBTQ+ network – this was my introduction to the world of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I).

I found myself having many conversations with a colleague of mine, Nick, about where there was more work to do. Lloyd Blankfein, our former CEO, is a huge advocate for gay marriage rights and the company was broadly very strong on talking about the issues gay and lesbian people face. But we knew we needed to do more to offer tangible support to our trans and non-binary community. Nick and I developed a pronouns initiative, which was rolled out globally across the organisation. This was really a turning point for me – it was the moment I realised I wanted to do this kind of work full time. When the pandemic hit, I suddenly had all this extra time. It gave me the space to reflect on where I wanted to be, which is how I made the decision to start applying for business schools.

Avoiding box-ticking

For many organisations today, D&I has become part of the business mantra. On one hand, this means people are often aware of what they need to be doing, but on the other it also means that these issues can become a box-ticking exercise. I believe it’s important we strive for progress because it’s the right thing to do and not only because we want to see a business benefit. Otherwise, we could easily end up in a position where progress stalls because C-suite execs are afraid of a backlash, or wind up with performative programming, where companies “talk the talk” about D&I work, but don’t actually commit to any real action.

When we launched our pronouns initiative at Goldman, there was some initial hesitation. What if older or more conservative members of our firm felt uncomfortable? Were we moving too fast? I don’t think these are the right questions to be asking, but I recognise this is where many companies are in their D&I journey.

Of course, if you don’t want your pronouns in your email signature, nobody’s going to force you to include them. But ultimately our D&I work shouldn’t revolve around white, straight cisgender people – it needs to revolve around our marginalised communities, who need a voice.

“I think belonging is more than just the critical parts of our identity that separate us; it can also be shared interests, perspectives or experiences”

Individual vs organisational responsibility

A lot of this comes down to the difference between individual responsibility and organisational responsibility. I believe the latter should be held to a much higher standard. If someone doesn’t want to engage with D&I work, or attend an International Women’s Day event, that’s their choice, but organisations have to lead the charge.

I’m proud to be a ROMBA scholar. I’m also actually one of the organisers of this year’s ROMBA conference. There are 12 of us on the committee and I’m the only one from Europe – which has given me a whole new perspective on how LGBTQ+ issues differ from culture to culture. Working with the Out in Business Club here at LBS is a similar experience. Our community is so international, which is wonderful, but it’s also made me think more critically about how we can push for progress when everyone experiences issues differently.

Being forced to get out of my own head and look at issues from a more international angle has been a good reminder that people’s lives rarely revolve around just one part of their identity. As Audre Lorde said, “There is no [such] thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” This is partly why allies are such an important part of our movement, and why effective allyship is so key for making progress in the corporate D&I space.

Sometimes allyship can be as simple as paying attention to how your organisation behaves and asking the right questions. Where do your organisation’s profits go? What kind of communities are they investing in? Even when you’re considering something as basic as your benefits policy, could you ask if general family leave or time off caring for an elderly family member or a loved one who is sick is as valued as maternity or paternity leave? Sustainable allyship is all about small steps we can take every day.

That said, privilege goes together with power and it can be used for good. The impact of having people who hold power in the room on the side of marginalised communities cannot be overstated; it’s immense. Genuine allyship also enables us to share the load. Sometimes, just moving through the world as a marginalised person can take a toll. It can be painful and exhausting – so why should the burden of advocating for our community fall to us, too?

Oppression holds us all back

Really, the work we’re doing benefits society as a whole, which is why we all need to advocate for each other. I’m a woman and a queer person, but I’m also white and not disabled and I can use my privilege and power to advocate for other communities. We need to understand that oppression holds everyone back and it’s on all of us – not just members of marginalised communities – to break down these systems of oppression. I think D&I initiatives combined with the power and platforms that companies and organisations hold can be really transformational in helping to combat oppression and build a more inclusive and equitable society.

It’s great that schools like LBS are open to having these conversations. That said, we need to be conscious that we’re not just talking about D&I, but also genuinely reflecting on how we can continue to learn and evolve. When organisations aren’t willing to do this, it doesn’t matter how many conferences they put on or how many D&I speakers they invite; people will never be able to take them seriously. The work starts at home. For me, that means asking, why do we have lower levels of representation in certain communities at LBS? And what are the pathways we can create to help get more students from different backgrounds here?

I’d love to see LBS think about how to increase representation among certain underrepresented communities, specifically women, Black and LGBTQ+ students, particularly those that identify as trans and non-binary. Especially given we’re such an international community, I want to see LBS investing more heavily in additional funding options for students. If we know women are affected by the gender pay gap, and people of colour are also subject to a racial wealth gap, we need to get serious about how we can innovate around this issue and offer real, tangible solutions so everyone has a path to come here.

After graduation, I see myself working in the D&I space. I’d really like to use the international lens I’m gaining at LBS to help organisations understand there’s a multitude of factors that influence our identities. It’s never just about sexual orientation; race, culture, gender identity, class and socioeconomic background all intersect. When you look at D&I professionals, it’s clear that a lot of people in these roles tend to be marginalised themselves – Chief Diversity Officer roles are largely held by Black women, for example. Similarly, lots of queer people hold senior roles in this space. I understand why this dynamic exists, but I’d love to see more people who are traditionally more privileged getting involved and use that privilege to help organisations walk the walk.

Julia Hamilton is Co-President of London Business School’s Out in Business Club

Three tips for progress

  • Take the initiative
    At Goldman Sachs we spotted an opportunity to open up the conversation around pronouns, so we did. We didn’t wait for our senior leadership to raise the issue. They likely would have come out with something sooner or later, but by getting there first we were able to guide the process. D&I is part of business, but it’s not the end goal, so it’s not something everyone in an organisation is constantly thinking about. If you see an issue, raise it!
  • Innovate
    My stepfather says the definition of foolishness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The same applies here. If we want business to profoundly change, we need to be willing to profoundly change ourselves. This may be uncomfortable at times, but it’s the only way we’ll ever achieve real progress. Push through. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and find ways to change the process.
  • Don’t expect perfection
    There are a lot of moving pieces in any D&I journey. It’s unlikely that you’ll achieve all your aims at once. Do I think our work at Goldman was successful in achieving all elements of trans rights? No. Do I think we made real progress? Yes. That’s what it’s all about – committing to small steps that you can take each day to make progress and never stopping; never losing that momentum and continuing to fight for more.


Invest in the career of a lifetime and gain a global network with our customisable two-year programme.