Leadership coach, speaker, and author Karen Catlin joins the program to discuss her experience as a woman working in the tech sector and how those experiences and observations led to her to her current work helping people to create more inclusive workplaces. She reveals the urgent need for change, and what leaders need to do to attract and retain diverse talent. Discover the future of allyship and how people of all backgrounds can become better allies.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Karen’s diversity story of growing up in a family with modest means (3:00)
- How leaders can create more inclusive workplaces (17:00)
- The need for men to be allies (21:00)
- The challenges and importance of inclusive language (26:00)
- The danger of the status quo (31:00)
- The need for a change in leadership style (32:30)
- What allyship looks like for people in marginalized groups (33:30)
- The unintended negative consequences of diversity groups (40:00)
- The future of allyship (46:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: My guest today is Karen Catlin.
A woman with a computer science degree, Karen spent 25 years building software products, starting off as a software engineer and, over time, moving into leadership roles. She has served as a VP of Engineering at two public software companies, and as the CEO of an early-stage startup.
Karen saw a decline in the number of women working in tech in those years, and ultimately decided to double down on the issue, shifting careers to become a leadership coach, speaker, and author who facilitates women to be stronger leaders as well as men who want to be better allies for underrepresented groups. In 2014, she launched the twitter handle, @betterallies, to share simple, actionable steps that anyone could take to make their workplace more inclusive. This handle became the inspiration for her new book, Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces.
Karen and I have arrived at a similar place of focus, which is to help more people cultivate their passion and skills in this direction. She shares how the book lists 50 ways you might have more privilege than your coworkers, and how, in her words, “you don’t have to be white, male, and pale to be an ally.” You might have other kinds of privilege that allow you to be a voice. She and I know that there are many who want to learn, to show support, and sometimes don’t know how, where and when to get involved, to use their voice.
Speaking of voices, Karen is invested in bringing more diversity to speaker lineups at tech industry events, teaching public speaking and co-authoring another book, called Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking.
Karen, welcome to The Will to Change.
KAREN CATLIN: It’s so good to be here, Jennifer, thanks for having me on the show.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, I’m excited. And yet another author. We tend to talk to a lot of authors on The Will to Change because that’s me too. And it’s so fun to capture someone like you who has literally released a book this January of 2019. We’re very excited to read it. It’s called Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive and Engaging Workplaces.
You and I have a lot of synergies that we’re going to be talking about today.
KAREN CATLIN: Excellent.
JENNIFER BROWN: Writing similar books, caring about similar audiences. Yes, we’re going to cover all of that.
We always start The Will to Change with our diversity stories. What would you like to share about your own past history, formative, ah-hah moments? How did you get to this place of being so passionate about this topic?
KAREN CATLIN: Yes. There are two directions I could go in. One, and I’m just going to briefly mention it because it’s important to the whole story and the narrative I think about me is I’m a woman and I have a computer science degree. I worked in tech for 25 years. So, as a woman in the tech industry, I’ve definitely been part of the minority. And that definitely was my catalyst for focusing on gender diversity and then expanding from there to talk about other kinds of diversity and how important it is to support people from all sorts of different backgrounds to create the best products.
But I actually want to talk about a different part of my approach and my background, which is I came from a very frugal background. There was no disposable income in my family growing up. We were of very modest means. And I think as I reflect and I was thinking about what story I wanted to share, I started realizing I think that that background and that upbringing has given me a certain compassion for others who also are not part of the 1 percent, so to speak.
Growing up, we always had a roof over our heads, we always had food on the table. It wasn’t as bad as so many other people who are really from very impoverished backgrounds have experienced.
But that was it. There wasn’t much more and literally no disposable income is what I want to emphasize. And that drove so much of my work ethic from babysitting and part-time jobs in school to even being very frugal myself with how I spent my money, how I was a bargain shopper, how I made clothes, how I wanted to save for college.
When I actually got into college, I was fortunate to get a full financial aid package, thank goodness. It made it possible. And even though I’ve gone on from college now to work in tech and I’ve earned good salaries every year, there still have been times when I’ve had to go back to those frugal roots. Times when, for example, my partner, Tim, decided to work for a startup with no pay and we had to cut back our expenses completely and have a tight budget and pack our lunches and so forth.
I mention all this because it makes me so compassionate to people that I meet today who are working in tech, primarily in Silicon Valley, that’s where I’m based, and even though they have great tech salaries, they still are not always able to partake in let’s all go out to lunch at this cool new restaurant down the street. Or let’s even just go to the food trucks that are coming to our neighborhood today.
People don’t always have the disposable income to be able to partake in those team-building exercises and opportunities. People don’t have the money to say, “Let’s all go on a ski trip to Tahoe for the weekend or whitewater rafting as a group tomorrow.” People have other constraints on their budgets. They have student loans they’re paying off, they have high rents, they have potentially parents that they are supporting.
And so I think it’s really important as I think about my diversity story is that’s the thing that I think has really helped me understand that everyone has a different path and journey and situation that they are living. Not everyone just has tons of money, even though we’re all working in tech, which is a very lucrative industry, definitely.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. You’re already teaching our audience. I hope our audience is picking up on several things you did just now that were inclusive. One of them was you referred to your partner, Tim, and I know we’re going to talk about this, but these are little choices of language that you chose to use that to be inclusive of all kinds of relationships, right? The word “partner” is something that the LGBTQ community is really sensitive to and really likes that word. In addition to “wife/husband” depending on what your preference is. Or maybe you don’t have a partner. We don’t want to assume everybody has a partner.
Particularly for heterosexually identified people to choose a word like that is a small thing that sends a huge signal of inclusion. I want to commend you for that. And your book is full of little things like that.
The second thing you did is talk openly about socioeconomic diversity. You used the example of how you plan celebrations in the workplace environment and the assumptions that we make about means amongst our colleagues, coworkers, and teams.
Even in an industry that tends to be, like you said, well compensated, I think that socioeconomic diversity is actually something I think we have barely scratched the surface of knowing to be sensitive to it and talking about it openly and talking about particularly when people share their diversity story, including that as an element of what has shaped them, and therefore what they might want to story-tell around or shed a light on because I do find, similarly, I had a very opposite background from you socioeconomically. It’s funny, I hid it and covered it for a long time. I think I still cover how I grew up, how extremely comfortable it was to grow up as me.
It felt scary to share that level of privilege as I’m running around endeavoring to be an inclusive voice. I know that it triggers other people. I know it might introduce some doubts about my credibility, doubts about my passion. It’s interesting, but it’s something that I absolutely hide.
Every story we share gives someone permission to reflect on their own story. There is no right or wrong, it’s just so fascinating to give that permission and see what people share. I’ve been shocked. You speak a lot, so you must hear a lot of really interesting shares. What are some of the things that have been revealed to you from your audiences as you’ve traveled around and spoken on the concept of allyship?
KAREN CATLIN: I love that you promote this concept of a diversity/adversity story. I think it causes us all to reflect and think about what we could share about some hardship we faced or something that makes us sympathetic to others and so forth.
I think this is super important for people who might otherwise feel like I’ve got a lot of privilege. Not everyone even knows that they have the privilege that they might have, because privilege is like a dirty word. People think it’s bad to have privilege. Privilege is just something you were born with or fell into. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve had a big trust fund given to you or a famous relative who’s going to open doors. That privilege maybe doesn’t feel good, but we all have these other kinds of privilege. For someone who might come across as if they’ve got tons of privilege, oozing privilege, to be able to share these stories helps make them more relatable and so forth.
To get back to your question about what do I hear about the adversity that people face as I’m talking, as I’m going out and meeting with people and so forth, I really appreciate hearing from people of color, I have to admit. I am someone who’s white, and my experience is so different than people of color. To hear about their experience is so eye opening and helpful to me in terms of it helps me do my work better.
I hear about the biases they face that aren’t even unconscious. It really seems just in your face.
JENNIFER BROWN: It does.
KAREN CATLIN: I hear about the concerns of I’m not going to ask for a raise, even though I know I’m being underpaid, because I’ve already gotten so much support from the person who hired me. I don’t want to ask for any more. That’s overspending my capital, for example. I hear that.
I hear about the concerns of doing things like making sure that when they are walking into a store to look at the security camera and pat the bag that they brought in with them or something so it’s very obvious that they brought that bag in with them, it’s this full, and so forth.
Anyway, I don’t know if that is helpful or if you want to explore that more, but I just wanted to let you know. Those are the people of color that I get to talk with and hear from, their experiences are so different than mine. It’s surprising even though I know it’s going to be the case.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Continually. And how bad it really is when you start to dive into it. It’s infuriating. I know that’s why you do the work you do now. I love your Better Allies messaging and platform and your daily small actions that can be taken. You are so good at boiling things down into concrete things you can do every day. It’s very viral on Twitter. I was first introduced to your name on Twitter, but I didn’t know it was you. I was following your handle. I was thinking, “Who is this person? They’re clearly such a good listener.” Your tips are always spot on. They’re always of the moment.
But then I started digging, and you had created something called the “manbassador BINGO card” in conjunction with the 3 Percent Conference. We’ve actually had Kat Gordon on The Will to Change, I love her. She has a conference called The 3 Percent Conference, which refers to the number of female creative directors in the advertising world. That number has grown, thankfully, but mainly for white women. The work continues, even if the number is increasing over all women. It’s to your point earlier, we have to really look at things through an intersectional lens when we look at numbers like that.
KAREN CATLIN: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: Anyway, tell us about how the BINGO card came to be, how the handle came to be, and tell us a little bit about the “manbassador” concept, too, as you experienced it at 3 Percent and what resonated about that.
KAREN CATLIN: Sure. This all started four years ago. It was 2014, and the Grace Hopper Conference was happening. Grace Hopper is a huge conference. It’s the largest conference for women working in computing. It happens on a yearly basis. In 2014, the organizers decided to have a male allies panel. And they invited four men from leading tech companies to talk about what they do as allies for women in the workplace.
Ahead of time, there was an interesting buzz about this panel. There were some women upset that men were taking away valuable stage time at this women’s conference. That was happening. And then they were also concerned about the track record of some of these companies, which wasn’t really that great. They were representative of the tech industry and not anything outstanding. They thought, “Why are these guys talking when their companies aren’t doing anything special?”
Ahead of time, a group got together and created a BINGO card. It was a BINGO card of all the phrases they expected these men to say that would show how far they still had to go to be really a good ally.
They handed the BINGO card out as women went into this panel. And, sure enough, about halfway through, a young woman yelled out, “BINGO!” Right? (Laughter.) So, this BINGO card was predicting what was going to happen.
It served its purpose because in the moment and at the conference, these men realized, “Okay, we actually need to learn more about this.” Immediately, they organized a reverse allies panel where the panelists were just listening to the women talk about their experience so they could learn from it. It served its purpose.
However, I wanted to take it a step further. I actually felt bad for these men. These men really were good men, they wanted to be showing their support, they wanted to learn all this stuff, and they almost didn’t know that there was a line in front of them that they were crossing. And the line they were crossing was doing things that were off the mark. They weren’t really meeting the needs of women in terms of allyship.
I partnered with another technical woman, Kate Houston, and we created the more aspirational version of this BINGO card. It was a BINGO card of the phrases we actually wanted men to use.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that.
KAREN CATLIN: Phrases like, “I pledge to not speak on all-male panels. I pledge to do a salary review and fix any inequities.” These types of things that we really wanted the allies to be doing.
We created this BINGO card. We, then, wrote an article in The Daily Beast about it. Another person contacted us, a designer, and offered to clean it up and turn our ugly duckling of a BINGO card into something that was really beautiful.
And then I thought I’d make a Twitter handle and just start tweeting out the phrases from the BINGO squares just to get the word out a little bit about this thing. That is the formation of @BetterAllies.
Frankly, @MaleAllies was taken, otherwise I probably would have a book called Male Allies. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I’ve broadened my perspective. It’s not just about men supporting women in the workplace, it’s about all the intersectionality and how allies can support anyone who is from a marginalized, underrepresented background.
Better Allies was available as a Twitter handle, and that’s what we chose. I started tweeting the BINGO card squares. Over time, I would come across different research that was out there or a story that was shared in some sort of media. I would look at the research or the story and think about, “Well, what’s the cautionary tale? What can I take away from it?” If I were still working in tech as a leader, as a manager, as an individual contributor, what could I do based on what I’m reading? That’s how I formed a voice. It was very much and still is first person. I will do this. I pledge to do this. I want to do this differently. I do “this” – whatever it is – to show my support and to be an ally.
That’s how it all came about. Of course, this summer, I decided I had to write a book. I’d been thinking about it for a while, it’s hard to jump in and just do it. I didn’t want all of these great tweets to fade into the Twitter twilight.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank goodness you did. Yes.
KAREN CATLIN: Thank you. I wanted to write the book.
JENNIFER BROWN: Just in case Twitter gets taken down or something. I don’t know, crazier things have happened. (Laughter.)
KAREN CATLIN: Twitter is not meant for long-term reference or a collection. You take your ladle, you dip it in when you have time, you read some tweets, you participate, but it’s not comprehensive at all. By being able to write a book, it helps me tell a more comprehensive story.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I’m really glad you put it all together. I get the pushback often, “I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to start.”
KAREN CATLIN: Oh, my gosh.
JENNIFER BROWN: There are a million places to start, what’s important is that you start.
KAREN CATLIN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Your BINGO card gives very discrete tasks and mindset shifts that you can undertake.
KAREN CATLIN: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m glad you put it all together.
KAREN CATLIN: Let’s talk about “manbassador,” though.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes! “Manbassador,” I want to know about that.
KAREN CATLIN: It’s important to mention this. The BINGO card that we created, which anyone can get from BetterAllies.com, it’s open source. And “open source” means that you can change it up, you can make a version for your industry or company or whatever as long as you give us credit. That’s what Kat Gordon did. Kat Gordon took our original BINGO card and created the “manbassador” version of that for the 3 Percent Conference. So, she kept some of the things the same, the overall format is the same. She changed the colors from red to pink, which is what was branding for her conference. She made it more fine-tuned for the creative industry based on her experience there and what she knew she wanted manbassadors to be for women in the creative industry.
I would encourage anyone, if they want to create a BINGO card for their industry or their company or their unique needs, please, start from ours. We’ve done a lot of the legwork and would be delighted if you could take it and modify it for your needs.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m looking at it. There are some examples like, “I call out sexist imagery in campaigns at my agency.” That’s one of the pieces. Another one is, “I fix a leaky pipeline by monitoring the number of women leaving my agency.”
KAREN CATLIN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I also really love, “I take my vacation and encourage downtime for my employees.” We talk a lot about the meaningfulness of particularly leadership behaviors and those kinds of choices that you think are personal or you don’t really think would be a leadership behavior.
When you still have a situation where parents don’t take full advantage of parental leave, but particularly male parents, fathers, in hetero or same-sex relationships, whatever it is, there is still a large stigma that differentially affects me in the workplace around the stigma of taking leave and all that that is read to mean in terms of your aspirations for your career and your dedication to the company and all this ridiculous stuff.
KAREN CATLIN: Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. I know Kat Gordon has a separate manbassador track at the 3 Percent Conference, which I’ve never seen. IT was such a revelation for me. I’d love your thoughts on this. I’m asked a lot about whether you need to exclude in order to create a safe space for learning to happen for people at the beginning of their journey. There is a level of safety that’s needed.
I love the manbassador track because it was this closed door, all men in the room, men and women on the stage, but men sharing their stories on the stage. It felt really powerful to me. Do you think that allies beginning on their journey need to sequester themselves with others, perhaps in their identity groups? What do you think about that dynamic? Are we inclusive all the time and it’s open borders or are there cases that need to be exclusive in order to accomplish something very specific when it comes to being an ally?
KAREN CATLIN: I guess I take a page from any group or organization for a segment of the population. There is a time when you want it to be just those people because there is deep learning that’s going on. There’s deep conversation, there’s support, there’s vulnerability that’s being expressed.
This may be for a woman of color in technology organizations or lesbians in tech. I’m very much in the tech industry, so these are the examples I’m thinking about.
There is a time and place for that. But there’s also a time and a place to open it up to a broader audience so that other people can come into those meetings, those conversations, those panels, tracks, whatever, and really understand the conversation that is even happening by that minority group, by that marginalized group.
There is a time and a place for both. I love that Kat is doing a manbassadors track to encourage men that this is for them and this going to be learning for them and it’s a great place for them to ask questions and push back.
You and I have both gone to the Better Man Conference, which is all about that. There is a lot of vulnerability that the Better Man Conference talking about how this feels and how it’s hard to do some of these things and so forth.
But the Better Man Conference also is open to people who are women. You and I have both been there, as well as non-binary. It’s a different kind of learning. There is time, space, and a place for both.
JENNIFER BROWN: I agree. That is always my answer. It’s time and place. We get this question a lot about employee resource groups in companies. Will they exist five to ten years from now? It’s a great question because I’m always mindful of the incoming generation of talent and how nonbinary they are in so many ways. It’s not just gender identification. It’s being multiracial. It’s having this vast array of diversity and it depends on the day. It is a generation which really wants to be seen in all of the variety of their identity, and seen, heard, and embraced by their employer as well. They’re so comfortable. But they walk into these super binary workplaces and they walk into, interestingly, diversity groups that are structured by race and gender, which is so foreign to a lot of younger people. They say, “Why do I have to choose? How is this a complete conversation?” I really welcome their instinct to poke holes in it.
I am mindful of how our generations have looked at this differently. Do you ever have those generational moments? As you’re presenting to a really young audience, have you shifted the way you talk or the examples you use or your consciousness of a binary framework? Our generation was proud to have mastered this question about being L, G, B, or T. Even getting people to say those words was huge.
KAREN CATLIN: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: But now you look at them through a nonbinary lens, and it’s so much that we utilized is no longer accurate. It is such a reduction of identities, too. What do you think about what that younger generation is ushering in?
KAREN CATLIN: Fortunately, I have two children who are gen Z. I think they are officially called gen Z – early 20s. It is so helpful to have conversations with them over dinner, for example, about the approaches to things. Not even just on this topic about nonbinary, it’s about everything. It helps keep me in tune with what is important to this generation.
The other thing I will say, though, is I definitely am on a journey myself with all this allyship stuff. I learn so much every day. I have to constantly pay attention to how I talk about the topics and what’s going to resonate with my audience – specifically pronoun usage, for example. I’ll just admit it. It’s so hard for me to say “they” when I mean a single person. I am doing my best to practice that.
I was just texting with my daughter before this. She had said something about someone, and I wasn’t sure what the gender was, so I just said, “Well, what do they want to do?” Even that is hard for me. The inner grammarian in me, it’s hard to break that grammar rule. I’m practicing and trying to get comfortable with it.
I’ve learned that if I make a mistake, and this is so important with an audience of younger people as well as anyone else, when I make a mistake, I own it. I apologize. For example, if I use the wrong pronoun, I might just say, “Sorry, I meant to say they, let’s move on.” Something like that. I own it, I apologize, and I correct myself. That is so important for all aspects of allyship because we can’t be experts in all of these aspects. Certainly, I am not and I’ve just written this book. I’m sure you feel the same way, too. We have only lived our own experiences and we can pay attention and study all these other things, but it’s constantly changing and shifting.
Another thing that I pay attention to is language. This example is in my book, but the week before I was writing the book on language usage, and I’ll say this out loud, I’ll say it again. I said, “We need to have a pow-wow on that topic.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized that’s not respectful of people who are Native Americans. It’s part of their tradition, and I shouldn’t be saying “pow-wow” like it’s a casual meeting. That’s an important part of their tradition.
As I figure out and learn that these terms that I might have been using for years and years are no longer inclusive, I need to start catching myself, correcting myself, and apologizing when I use the wrong words. I’m slowly learning.
Frankly, to get back to using the word “partner” for my husband, Tim, as you called out in the very beginning. That’s hard, too, because we’ve been married for 30 years and I’ve called him my husband for 30 years and only recently have I started talking about him as my partner to practice that muscle around using more inclusive language to talk about life partners. Thank you for calling that out, but that’s another example of my journey here. I’m doing my best to be inclusive, but I’m not perfect.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’ve noticed how much we use words like “crazy” and “insane” and “nuts.”
KAREN CATLIN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: All the time in business. I know it’s a bad habit. There are levels of awareness of our language that is hurtful. Once you start to notice these things, it can be paralyzing. I understand that. I don’t think we need to give in to feeling like, “Oh, I can’t say anything right, I’m going to take my marbles and go home.” That’s not the message. It’s amazing how much bias permeates our everyday language. I don’t feel threatened by it. I welcome the challenge of that. I know what you mean about the grammar of using “they” and trying to be correct and respectful.
I like the way you handle it. I predict we’ll get to a point where it’s important not to presume people’s gender pronouns and to check in all the time, not just when you think you might be meeting somebody for the first time who may be gender nonbinary.
I foresee a day when disclosure of gender is part of how we get to know each other or request that. I see that day coming. As you and I know with corporate audiences, that’s not what they want to hear. They hope a lot of this stuff is going to generationally go away. I say, “No, no.”
In the news in New York just last week, they added a third gender option for birth certificates. Slowly, but surely, this will become not only normal, but expected in the future. The question for leaders is: Do you want to be on the train? Do you want to be a part of change? If you do, then you spend a lot of your energy arguing with a concept or resisting it or figuring out ways around it instead of incorporating it, living with it, getting used to it, experimenting with it. That’s the energy of inquiry that I think we need to all have.
KAREN CATLIN: Yes. And it gets back to the classic leadership lesson – what got you here is not going to get you there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
KAREN CATLIN: All the things you’ve learned that have made you successful to date is not necessarily what’s going to make you successful moving forward. That applies to product innovation, fine-tuning or disrupting your business model, but also how you lead. That’s what I think is an important message here. This allyship stuff, I hope that people want to do it because it feels like a moral imperative and it feels like the right thing to do. Ultimately, this is smart for yourself and your own business needs, your professional needs, because the leadership style and approach you took before is not going to cut it moving forward. You need to be this ally and learn these approaches for supporting and advocating and amplifying these people from all sorts of different backgrounds. You desperately need them in your workforce.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
KAREN CATLIN: I use “leader” very loosely there. It could be an individual contributor, a first-line manager, a VP, a CEO. Leadership shows up in all sorts of different ways. My book is not just for CEOs, it’s really for anyone who is in a professional setting who wants to grow and learn.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. I love it. Tell me about how allyship shows up amongst those who are not white, straight, and male. As I’m writing my book, I am endeavoring to create a model that everyone can undertake, a path, right?
I know for me, the evolution I’ve had on the ally journey or continuum that I talk about is I think I was part of marginalized groups in terms of my gender and certainly in terms of being an LGBT person in that community. Within that, I was shielded tremendously from those identities and ramifications of those identities by my privilege, right? It’s a mixed bag. My experience is not at all like so many LGBTQ people who I know. And then you add in color, socioeconomic background, abilities. It’s fascinating.
For me, I spent a bunch of time in that space, and as I’ve evolved and thought about how I need to use my voice in the world, it might be on behalf of and alongside those who have less of a voice than I do. I feel very strongly pulled to my ally journey with communities that I’m less familiar with that really need my voice.
I identify these days as a white cisgender ally. I think about leading and using my voice from that place, but it’s interesting because I started and continue to be in some communities that are struggling to be heard, seen, an represented.
I live for those moments when I hear a woman of color say, “I want to use my voice as an ally.” It’s tremendous to me. It’s beautiful, it’s brave, and it’s amazing when you’re fighting all these battles on different levels, and yet you have the presence to say, “I identify as someone who wants to be a proud ally.” We have this mix of things that we’re navigating all the time. I think allyship is an intersectional conversation and that’s what I love about it. We all can be an ally and we all have a level of privilege.
KAREN CATLIN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: But I also think of how tired a lot of us are. We’ve been fighting and fighting and fighting from a marginalized place. Yet, now I have to fight for others and myself. That’s why I think it’s really humbling and beautiful when I think about that.
We are going to have Amber Hikes on the podcast, who is the LGBTQ liaison to the mayor of Philadelphia. She’s a queer woman of color who talks about allyship all the time. It’s not just, “I need your allyship,” it is, “I am an ally. I’m standing here for you.” I think it’s transcendent, honestly. It’s one of those big ideas that if we could make this universal, how powerful would that be?
In your own evolution you said #Male Allies wasn’t available, and then you thought #BetterAllies. Now it’s opened up this whole frame to you that’s really everyone’s conversation.
KAREN CATLIN: Yes, as you’re talking, my head is swirling and exploding here. So much because, first of all, you touched on we all have some amount of privilege. I firmly believe that. In the book, I have a list of 50 ways you might have more privilege than your coworkers. Just to unpack it, you don’t have to be white, male, and pale to be an ally. You might have other kinds of privilege that allow you to be a voice. The person you just mentioned – I’ve already forgotten her name, I’m sorry.
JENNIFER BROWN: Amber Hikes.
KAREN CATLIN: Amber has privilege because of her standing on the mayor’s staff, right? So, she has some privilege that allows her to have a certain audience, a certain respect when she goes out and talks to people, whatever it is. Maybe many other aspects of her privilege as well. But we all have some privilege that allows us to support people of our same demographic or those with less privilege.
The other thing I want to say about all of this, too, is it’s critical that people do feel empowered to be allies for people, even though they aren’t maybe white, male, or cisgendered. I don’t know always what other people in other underrepresented groups need. I have only walked a mile in my own shoes. I don’t know what a Hispanic might need coming into the tech industry in terms of allyship. I can talk to her, I can ask questions, but I might not know myself.
And so to involve a lot of voices in this conversation is critical so that we aren’t assuming that what works for us is going to work for somebody else.
At the same time, there is that notion that not everyone is going to want to be an ally. Not everyone is going to want to be a voice to help other people because they are working on other things themselves. They have other challenges, they have other situations, they have things that fill their days, fill their hours, fill their emotional energy that just doesn’t allow them to do this work. That’s fine, too.
When we find the people who do feel this calling, and sometimes it’s simple, it’s just these everyday things, it’s not a lot of work, maybe change the culture of their environment a little bit and they’re doing that from the point of view of being a marginalized person. That’s great, but we still need those people who have a ton of privilege to be doing that as well.
I feel like I’m being very abstract, so let me give an example of what I’m thinking here. Meetings. Our workplaces are fueled on meetings. We have meetings for everything, and we often have things going on in meetings that aren’t exactly welcoming of people from underrepresented groups. We have interruptions happening, we have people ignoring ideas and picking up the same idea later and claiming it as their own. We have, potentially, people taking up a lot of space in meetings in terms of how much they’re talking or even physical space that prevents everyone from being around the same table.
There are so many things that can get in the way. For a person from an underrepresented background to start pointing these out to someone who is in a position of privilege or more privilege than them I think is beautiful when they start pointing out there’s a lot of interrupting that happens at these meetings, can you help put a culture in place that prevents interruptions or that we have a role-keeper around the table who their responsibility is to point out when an interruption is happening and steer the conversation back.
An underrepresented person who wants to make that change could come across as being a complainer, but if they raise it with the right person who has a lot of privilege, that person can actually maybe make that change and have it stick and have it be supported. I just wanted to provide that one tangible idea of what I’m talking about.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for doing that.
KAREN CATLIN: It’s very complicated. As you were talking about all of these aspects, my head was going in all sorts of different directions. It’s complicated!
JENNIFER BROWN: I have so many things to say to that underscoring what you just said. Just now, you talked about what we call “emotional labor.” It’s the labor of taking responsibility for the team dynamics in a meeting you happen to be in. And if you happen to be the person that’s being talked over or whose ideas are getting stolen or who is also probably facing conscious and unconscious bias on a daily basis because of just who you are. For you to step forward is exponentially more difficult and risky. We talk a lot about the need. Work smarter and not harder. You’ve got to know these dynamics are real. You didn’t imagine it, but you don’t have to fight every single battle that comes up. You need to be strategic about who you channel your ask or your energy through, who for reasons of privilege often can tackle something in a different way, in a faster way, in an easier way, and a less-risky way than for you to tackle it.
It’s smarter, not harder, because it’s managing your energy. I worry about fatigue, based on all the conversations I have with people in many workplaces. I worry about the negative impact of being the squeaky wheel when you’re a woman, when you’re a person of color, when you’re LGBT. You end up getting this reputation like you’re the watchdog, and not in a good way for the organization, right?
KAREN CATLIN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Or you’re the one who gets nominated to lead the diversity committee. Simultaneously, you’re thrilled because you’re passionate about it, but you also feel tokenized. All of these things, to me, what I hear in this is that people in the, quote/unquote, majority – whoever that means, because there’s a diversity within the majority as well. If we believe many hands make light work, right now we are overly burdening a lot of people to be the conscience keepers of our organization, to be the monitors for their own pain and their own experience, which is so unfair.
I think it’s another thing that we’ll look back at this moment and say, “Wow, we were not going about that correctly.” Maybe setting up a diversity team will be something that we look back and say, “That had unintended consequences.” I think about that with ERGs, too. I’m often asked, “Are these going to exist in the future?” Some of the LGBT groups in corporate America are 80 percent allies. What does that mean when you start to become truly intersectional? Are these identity concepts going to drop away? It’s really, really interesting.
When you think about the future, what do you think we’ll see? What does the next year hold for the allyship conversation?
KAREN CATLIN: I really hope 2019 is the year of the ally.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes!
KAREN CATLIN: I joke with you a little bit that it would be awesome if Time magazine had that be the Person of the Year, the Ally of the Year.
JENNIFER BROWN: We need to make that happen. (Laughter.)
KAREN CATLIN: I am such an optimist. I am a glass-half-full kind of person. That’s my aspiration for 2019, that it’s the year of the ally. I’m already sensing and hearing and the feedback I’m getting on my book from early reviewers as well as the Twitter handle and my newsletter subscribers – I get fan tweets, I get fan mail in response to my newsletter. I feel like I’m having impact enough that people take time out of their day to thank me for writing this newsletter. It’s anonymous. I don’t have my name attached to it. They’re just sending an e-mail to BetterAllies and hoping somebody’s going to read it – which I do.
There is a reception happening around this topic that makes me so happy down to the core. The optimist in me feels like this is going to continue.
My book came out in January, yours is coming out in the summer I believe. There are a few others that I’m hearing also that authors are working on and we’re all exploring this concept of allyship from different directions. It’s a healthy combination of voices. As an optimist, I think workplaces are going to be better because people are going to have an increased awareness of how important the notion of allyship is and how they can be better allies. I’m so optimistic.
JENNIFER BROWN: I am, too. I really am. This is the next evolution of the conversation. One prediction I have is that I think there are going to be men-as-allies groups in the workplace. We’re going to look back and say, “Wow, why were we doing all this work without a substantive, legitimate way to involve so many that feel that this whole diversity conversation hasn’t really included them?” For whatever logic, perception is reality. When I think about how we as practitioners set things up and how we message them and who we invite.
My favorite thing to say to folks is that you can’t just slap “and allies” onto a corporate initiative and then say, “Where are all the men at the women’s meeting?” It’s not as easy as that. We’ve got to get deeper. Of course, leaders have to expect this as a required competency. I say that and I hesitate because I know the workplace has an obsession with what gets measured gets done. Sometimes you’re just working to the measurement and you’re not really doing the deep personal transformation work that you and I know is needed I order to step into this. It shouldn’t just be to satisfy a metric or get your comp.
Sometimes people say, “Do you think we should introduce metrics around diversity and inclusion into our performance reviews and compensation and bonus structure?” I say, “Well, there are pluses and minuses to doing that.” But if we wait around for people to be intrinsically motivated, it might take a little longer – maybe a lot longer – but we’ll have a more quality output from people who are really early adopters.
If people could just pause and say, “What kind of leader do I want to be? What kind of legacy do I want to leave? How am I challenging myself knowing what got me here won’t get me there? How am I putting myself into uncomfortable positions where I feel like the only?” I can increase my empathy, I can grow in my sensitivity. I can hear myself and realize that what I said was exclusive. Build that muscle. The person who’s underrepresented doesn’t always have to be the one reminding everybody that something was said or that meeting was planned in a certain way or a social event was held in a certain place at a certain time of day.
I had a senior woman in tech tell me, “The bar situation is such a problem. I don’t drink. It’s not fun for me, but I know that that’s where I need to be because that’s where the informal exchanges happen that make such a difference to career, but I’m uncomfortable in those locations.” It’s an extension of the golf course, the sporting events, the sports language. We are in a moment of looking at everything we do in the business world and realizing how powerfully exclusive it has been to so many. The question is: Are we going to step up and start to care about these things? Are we going to let them continue unchallenged? Who is going to challenge them?
I hope that the challengers are, increasingly, not people coming from the place of being impacted, but from a leadership place. They can say, “I may be comfortable in this place, but I know so many people who aren’t. Therefore, I’m going to make a different choice.” That is when the change is really going to accelerate. I can’t wait for that day.
KAREN CATLIN: Yes! And you know what else is happening? On top of the sentiment you shared, you’re hopeful that people will start “seeing the light.” But at the same time, there is an underlying business climate with a talent shortfall. Right? We have record unemployment going on right now – record low unemployment. Certainly in tech, we don’t have enough talent, skilled workers to fill all the positions that we need. There’s also the H-1B visa issue, which is preventing us from hiring people outside the U.S. or limiting how many people we can hire who are those skilled workers to supplement the talent shortfall that’s happening in the United States.
As a great leader, who wouldn’t want to make sure that their workforce was inclusive to everyone to cast the widest net in trying to fill the positions that you have. Who wouldn’t want that? That’s another thing that’s happening. I hope that every single leader out there is one of these decent people who wants to do the right thing. There is a business need around being inclusive to fill the talent shortfall.
JENNIFER BROWN: Karen, I want you to talk about the bonus chapter – not only because you wanted to, but also that’s where you quote me, humbly.
KAREN CATLIN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Tell us a little bit about that bonus chapter in the book. Also, can you segue into letting us know more about the book, where we can find you, and where we can find Better Allies?
KAREN CATLIN: Thank you. I added this bonus chapter because I heard from one person in particular, but realized this was a question on many people’s minds. My book is all about how to be a better ally for other people, but the question is: What if I’m a white, straight man who really cares about diversity and who cares about being a good ally? How do I actually go about interviewing for a new job when hiring me is the exact opposite of furthering diversity? I’m just going to be another white guy in the office. How can I resolve that I my head? How can I interview while being white and male?
That is the title of the bonus chapter: Interviewing While Being White and Male. I interviewed a number of people about how to go about this. The part where I interviewed you is talking about how important it is to share your diversity/adversity story in the interview process to say how that even though the bias might be that you are white and male with every privilege the world, that there is probably something that you can share which shows your empathy because of where you’ve come from and situations you’ve had in the past.
It was wonderful to include that in the book. Thank you for the quote you gave and the inspiration as well. Definitely important.
People can find the book at BetterAllies.com. That’s the book site, as well as all the social media. I’m on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Medium as @BetterAllies. You can find it all at the BetterAllies.com website and of course my book is on Amazon. I’d be thrilled to get it in people’s hands. Hopefully, some of your listeners will head over there and check it out.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m sure they will. You’ve tapped into the most excited audience ever for this topic. Thank you, Karen, for joining us.
KAREN CATLIN: Thank you for having me, Jennifer. It was lovely talking with you. I’m sure you and I will be constant touch this year, the year of the ally, 2019!
JENNIFER BROWN: The year of the ally, 2019! Thanks, Karen.
KAREN CATLIN: Yes, thank you.
- Power, Patriarchy and Privilege: Better Man Movement's Ray Arata on Galvanizing Male Leaders
- Holding Ourselves Lightly: Fear as a Companion to Growth with Author, Acrobat, and Entrepreneur Robin Zander
- Growing the Next Generation: Boys and Girls Club COO Lorraine Orr Joins the Will to Change
- Imagine Belonging Summit “Teaser”: Conversations with Rhodes Perry on Handling DEI Backlash
- What Gets Measured, Gets Done: Progressing Global Gender Equality with Sandra Quince, Michelle Charles and Silke Heinrichs