Poornima Vijayashanker

3 Simple Actions to Be a Better Ally and Create an Inclusive Workplace


Last week on Build, we shared what allyship is and why it can help build inclusive workplaces. Anytime new approaches like these come out, our defenses go up because it can be challenging to change mindsets and best practices. Plus there’s some fear around what the unintended consequences will be.

I hear ya!

Here’s the thing about allyship: you don’t need to get the green light from someone at the top or put in a ton of effort to make an impact. Turns out there are everyday actions that can benefit your team and workplace and make you a better ally.

In today’s episode, we’ll be sharing them with you to help you get started as an ally!

To help us out, I’ve invited Karen Catlin, co-author of Present! A Techie’s Guide To Public Speaking, a leadership coach, and an advocate for inclusive tech workplaces. You may recall seeing Karen in a few episodes from last year on mentorship.

I invited Karen back on to the show to talk about the work she has been doing coaching allies.

Given Karen’s rich career in tech spanning 25 years, she has a lot of experience to draw from, and it has inspired her to help other become better allies and create inclusive workplaces.

Here’s what you’ll learn as you watch today’s episode:

  • How you can get started being an ally
  • How Karen went about testing a number of simple everyday actions people can take to being an ally
  • 3 simple everyday actions you can start to take immediately
  • How companies have benefited from allies taking simple everyday actions
  • A best practice for being a better ally in your community

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

Want to get in touch and learn more from Karen?

Reach out to Karen Catlin on her website, follow her on Twitter, and follow Better Allies on Twitter to get more simple tips. Sign up to be notified when her new book is out, and get five simple actions each week to create a more inclusive workplace.

3 Simple Actions To Be A Better Ally And Create An Inclusive Workplace Transcript (Raw)

Poornima Vijayashanker: In the last episode, we talked about what allyship is, and why it’s important for helping with diversity in the workplace today. If you missed that episode, I’ve included a link to it below this video. In today’s episode, we’re going to dive into some best practices on how you can become a better ally through simple, everyday actions. So stay tuned.

Welcome to Build brought to you by PivotalTracker, I’m your host Poornima Vijayashanker, in each episode of Build, innovators and I debunk a number of myths and misconceptions related to building products, companies, and your career in tech. Now two big misconceptions that a lot of folks have when it comes to being an ally for diversity is thinking that they need to have a green light from some high level executive in order to have their initiative come out, and thinking that the initiative has to make a big impact in order to even pursue it.

Well it turns out that there are some everyday actions that you can do that will cause a ripple effect and improve diversity in your workplace, and we’re going to share what those are in today’s episode. And to help us out, Karen Catlin is back. Karen is my co author for our book Present, she’s also a leadership coach and an advocate for diverse and inclusive workplaces. Thanks for coming back on the show.

Karen Catlin: Thanks so much for having me again.

What allyship is and why it’s important

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, so let’s do a quick recap for people who might be joining us. Tell us what allyship is, and again why it’s important today.

Karen Catlin: Mm-hmm (affirmative), so allyship is simply using your position of privilege to make more inclusive workplace, and help other people be successful if they don’t have quite as much privilege as you. And this is so important today, because we have a war on talent, it’s hard to hire people so you want to cast a wide net and keep those people once you’ve hired them, keep them productive and working hard at your company, and stayed, staying there.

And, there are all these studies showing the economic benefits, benefits of improved innovation, problem solving, and decision making. So that’s why it’s important.

How you can get started being an ally

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So let’s talk about how people can get started, because I’m sure there’s people in our audience who would love to get started as an ally.

Karen Catlin: Yeah, so it’s really not that hard. And I love the way you started out saying you don’t have to have a huge initiative, you don’t have to be the VP of people at your company, or head of diversity and inclusion to start being an ally. You simply I think need to just start paying attention to what’s going on around your workplace, and raising awareness yourself, and if you’re not really aware of like what are some of the things I could be doing, it’s fine to ask someone who is an underrepresented gender, or minority, just ask them for some feedback of what are some of the challenges you’re facing, and what’s one thing I could be doing to help you out?

How Karen Catlin went about testing simple everyday actions people can take to being an ally

Poornima Vijayashanker: So in your upcoming book, you provide a myriad of best practices, but before we dive into some of those, let’s talk about how you went about testing these practices.

Karen Catlin: So I start testing these ideas actually on Twitter.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Karen Catlin: About four years ago, I started a Twitter handle called @betterallies. And it was anonymous, it still is anonymous until this show actually.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: And I started tweeting simple, everyday actions that someone could take to create a more inclusive workplace. And my whole goal was that I didn’t want it to be, you didn’t have to feel like you were the head of people at your company, or head of diversity and inclusion to make a difference. It really was something that the normal person could do. So I started tweeting these ideas based on my experience working in tech, based on coaching clients I had, as well as the research that was being published at the time of the challenges that are happening in tech workplaces as well as other workplaces by people who are underrepresented.

Based on the reaction, I kind of started realizing, OK that works, that’s helpful, that’s not so helpful, and where it was helpful it was really helpful, and I started getting again, positive reinforcement that these messages were making a difference to the people who were consuming them. And checking out my Twitter handle too it’s like, there’s some, you can use Twitter Analytics to find out a little bit about your demographics.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Karen Catlin: And I have about 50% followers who are men, 50% women, so I know that there are a lot of men who are paying attention to this and appreciating the content.

How companies have benefited from allies taking simple everyday actions

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. I know you’ve coached some men, so do you mind sharing maybe one or two examples of how these best practices have helped their team, or their company?

Karen Catlin: Sure. One that’s just so memorable to me is I was coaching a man about, he wanted to hire more diverse talent for his team, and we started talking about just different aspects. I asked him just so how does the team socialize today, like you know, to go out to lunch or after hours? What’s social life like for the team? And he looked at me, and he said, oh, you mean I probably should’ve told those guys going to the strip club for lunch last week that that’s not cool? I’m like yeah maybe that wasn’t exactly the most inclusive social event.

He honestly like, bless him, he just hadn’t realized how other people might feel that they couldn’t go out to lunch that day with some of the team members, right. Another example is some of the language we use, and I know Pivotal Tracker I was reading a blog post that they now have something in their daily stand up, and in their bill process for the week called the Inclusion Thing of the Week.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, cool.

Karen Catlin: And they just come up with the idea of something they can be doing to be more inclusive, and they talk about in their daily stand ups and everything, and one of them was simply don’t use the word “guys.” Some people may be thinking, “Wait a second Karen, what do you mean? Guys is gender neutral, we use it all the time.” To them, I always like to say well if you were a woman, you need to use a public restroom, and there was a door marked guys, do you go in? Probably not.

Or if someone were to ask you, a man, how many guys did you date in high school? They’re not thinking women, right there, right? So “guys” is not gender neutral, so that’s another thing that as Pivotal Tracker learned is a simple thing they could do. As I’ve started coaching other people too, examples come up such as, “Well what’s your spirit animal?”

Well maybe that’s not very inclusive because spirit animal is actually an important part of some Native American cultures, and spiritual component of it. So it’s really kind of appropriating their culture. So I can’t believe this is such a beautiful example of an alternative. Why not use patronas instead from Harry Potter right? So just swap that out, and have everyone feel that they can be included in the conversation.

Best Practice #1: Reviewing how we give feedback to women versus men

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. OK so let’s dive in now and have you share three best practices from your book.

Karen Catlin: Yeah. So the first one I’ll share is all about performance feedback. People who do research into performance feedback have done things like study performance reviews, written performance reviews, thousands of them, and found that there is gendered difference in how we give feedback to women versus men. Some of that gender difference shows up in the form of the feedback that we give to women is more vague.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Karen Catlin: And with men, it’s more specific. We’re telling men more often that this is how your work has impacted the business, here’s how you can keep impacting the business, here’s a skill you need to learn to have a bigger impact on the business. And with women less so, it’s more vague. And at the same time there have been studies showing that we actually tend to hold back from giving constructive feedback, the hard feedback, to people who are different than us.

So whether that’s a different gender, different race, or so forth, we hold back from giving the constructive feedback probably because we don’t want someone to think that oh he’s only giving me that feedback because I’m a woman. So as a man we might think I don’t want to give a woman feedback because she’s going to think I’m sexist if I criticize her. I don’t want to give a person of color feedback if I’m white, because they’re going to think I’m racist, right.

So we hold back, and we soften the feedback. But that doesn’t do anyone any good, right.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: We really need that feedback, constructive as well as the positive feedback to keep growing our careers. So in the book there’s a whole chapter on giving feedback with best practices of doing things like looking at the language you’re using, and are you actually tying the feedback that you’ve giving someone to their performance? And to the impact they’re having on a business?

Are you providing skill based suggestions about how they can grow their career that way? And, at the end of the day, are you writing reviews of roughly the same length for men and women, for all of your staff? Because that’s one indicator that you might be skimping on the feedback, real easy thing to check.

Best Practice #2: Give credit to an idea’s owner publicly

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. Well that’s a very comprehensive best practice, thank you for sharing. Do you have another one?

Karen Catlin: Sure, pay attention to what happens in meetings. So much of tech and frankly any workplace is driven through meetings. And, in meetings there are a number of dynamics at play that really prevent people who are in the minority from speaking up and fully participating. Perhaps it’s that they are interrupted, we’ve talked about that already.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yep.

Karen Catlin: And number of reasons why that might happen, but if that is part of your culture, or perhaps there are some repeat offenders who interrupt frequently, that could be something you could be paying attention and stopping. It could be that the ideas are not being credited appropriately when women or people in minority positions are bringing them up.

It may be that someone’s asking a question, like in a client meeting of what they, they asked the question to the person who they think is in the power position of the meeting. Probably a man, when really it should go to a woman. So redirect that question to well, you say something like, that question would be best answered by Poornima, the founder of Femgineer, like throw that question to the right person. So look for ways that you can create more inclusive meetings by just paying attention to these social cues that are happening.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. So this is great in meetings, but I think sometimes we’re not sure if we’re doing it the right way. So is there a way we can solicit feedback from our peers, from our boss?

Karen Catlin: Yeah, why not use the back channel?

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, yeah.

Karen Catlin: The back channel that’s in any meeting, I mean we all use them right. The DM’s or the text messages, private chats to just like touch base with people, like what did you think of that point they just made? Or did I clarify everything I should’ve clarified? We’re constantly using the back channels, why not just ask people in the meeting that you trust, have someone DM you when you could’ve been a better ally, when you could’ve stood up for someone who was interrupted or had trouble making a point in the meeting, or whatever it is right. Use the back channel.

Best Practice #3: Say no to office housework that isn’t your job

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. Your third best practice that you’d like to share with us.

Karen Catlin: Yeah, so the third one is I think I’ll choose office housework. So office housework is the stuff that needs to happen in any office and it’s no ones job really to get it done, and it’s important work, but not really leading to business growth, career growth, and so forth. The classic example is taking the minutes at a meeting. When that’s not your job.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Karen Catlin: That’s your job, that’s not office housework, that’s your job. But if it’s no ones job and you just have called a meeting and someone needs to take the minutes, it often falls on the shoulder of a woman sitting around the table. The problem with that is the person taking the minutes is usually a step behind, so they’re not participating in the meeting at full force so to speak, so they’re being left out, their voice is counted as much. They’re also put in a subservient position to maybe their peers who are sitting around the table, and that’s not fair, and that might have longer impact right, well beyond the meeting.

So it’s much better to set up a rotation.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Actually did that at my second startup, yeah.

Karen Catlin: Excellent, so you were a great ally there. But office housework isn’t just meeting minutes, it’s also things like maybe it is someone’s got to clean up all the comments in the code before we ship it off to our partner, or to make it open source, right. That important work needs to happen, but it doesn’t really lead to career growth, right. It could be oh we need someone to mentor the intern again this summer, Susie did it the last five summers and she’s awesome at it, right.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right. Maybe Susie doesn’t want to do it again, she wants to do something else, yeah.

Karen Catlin: Exactly, because the first time yeah maybe there’s some career growth area, you learn to mentor, you learn to have that leadership skill, but the fifth time you’ve probably mastered it and maybe it’s time to spread the wealth.

A best practice for being a better ally in your community

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, that makes sense. So these three are great for inside your company, do you have maybe a couple best practices you would share for the community at large?

Karen Catlin: Sure, so I think we should think about our networks, the networks we build professionally. Our networks, and there’s research on this too, that they become very homogenous, or just like me, because we meet people and hang out with people, and connect with people, and stay in touch with people who we share some common interest with, right. So it’s not that that can’t cross gender bounds, or racial bounds or anything like that, but we tend to have networks that are primarily just look like us.

So the impact of that is that then we only have people who are like us that we connect with opportunities, whether that is to get a new job, or to speak at an event, or some other career growing opportunity, right. We recommend people in our network. So the call to action here is diversify your network. The next time you’re out at any kind of professional event, go say hello and introduce yourself to someone who does not look like you.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: Whatever that means right. Start a conversation, see if you can’t connect them with an opportunity, and reverse might happen to. So diversify our network I’d say is the first one. The second thing is, and this is such an important part of being an ally is, don’t just be a bystander, or like I don’t do these bad things, right. Be an upstander. When you see something bad happening, don’t just like say that’s not my problem, like say something, and see something, say something.

There is a story that was shared on Twitter just I think a week or two ago of a woman saying that one of the worst things that ever happened to her as a public speaker was that there’s a man who asked a question during the Q&A and kind of demanded to know was she single, because he wanted to pursue things with her. And at the time, I mean I wish there had been an upstander in the audience who would just stand up and say basically, hey dude, we don’t do that here.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Karen Catlin: That’s all it takes, defuse it and put the guy in his place, and show some support for the woman.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Well you remember when I was in Canada, I fortunately had a team that helped when I had a heckler in the audience, and just kindly took this gentleman outside, and I could kind of move on with my Q&A, so it helps to have those folks in your kind of corner.

Karen Catlin: Yes, absolutely.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So be one of those people.

Karen Catlin: Be one of those people, yes.

Better Allies: Everyday Actions For Creating More Inclusive Engaging Workplaces

Poornima Vijayashanker: So I know we just scratched the surface. So tell us more about the upcoming book as well as how people in our audience can work with you.

Karen Catlin: Yeah, so the book is Better Allies: Everyday Actions for Creating More Inclusive Engaging Workplaces. And you can get in touch with me at KarenCatlin.com, but I really encourage you to follow @betterallies on Twitter, or other social channels, we’re on Instagram, Pinterest, and Medium as well. And there’s a newsletter also so if you go to betterallies.com you can get the subscription link to the newsletter.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wonderful, thank you.

Karen Catlin: Yeah, thank you.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well I can’t wait to read Karen’s book, and that’s it for this episode of Build. Be sure to share this episode with your teammates, your friends, your boss, anyone who you think may be wanting to be an ally, and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode. Ciao for now.

Build is produced as a partnership between Femgineer and Pivotal Tracker. San Francisco video production by StartMotionMEDIA.