Poornima Vijayashanker

How Being an Ally Can Help You Create an Inclusive Workplace


As the year comes to a close, you’re probably getting ready to attend a holiday party, maybe your company’s. And maybe you’re concerned about what to talk about with your teammates and boss. Diversity and inclusion may be hot buttons to stay clear of, especially with people scrutinizing practices and scoffing at the benefits.

But you know it’s important…so what can you talk about? How can you set your team and company up to see a change next year?


Wondering what it is and how to be a better ally? Well in today’s episode, we’ll cover what allyship is and how it can help you build a more inclusive company.

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 others become better allies and create inclusive workplaces.

As you watch today’s episode, you’ll learn the following:

  • What an ally is and what allyship is
  • How people can develop an awareness for allyship
  • Why you don’t need to be a leader to be an ally in your company
  • Why men care about being an ally
  • How to spot or approach an ally to work for

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.

How Being an Ally Can Help You Create an Inclusive Workplace Transcript (Raw)

Poornima Vijayashanker: You’ve probably read a number of headlines around discrimination in tech. Despite all of the diversity initiatives, it seems like change is pretty slow. So, what can we do to make change faster, both in our teams and our companies? Allyship. If you’re not familiar with what allyship is, well, in today’s Build episode we’re gonna talk about it. So stay tuned.

Welcome to Build, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. 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. As you’re well aware of, diversity is a hot topic today. There are a number of practices, but people are scoffing at their benefits and they’re wondering if there can really be anything done in the near term.

Well, there is a new approach called allyship. In today’s episode, we’re gonna share how allyship can help you and your company. To help us out, I invited Karen Catlin. Karen is my co-author on our book, Present. Karen is also a leadership coach and an advocate for inclusive tech workplaces. In the episode today, we’re gonna be talking about what allyship is, why it’s important, and in the next episode, we’ll be sharing some of the best practices that you can put in place every day.

Karen Catlin: Thanks so much for having me on the show again, Poornima.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: It’s great to be here.

Why diversity and inclusion have been on a decline in tech for more than two decades

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thanks for coming on. You’ve had a rich career in tech. Why don’t you share with us what you’ve done, as well as problems you’ve experienced over that time?

Karen Catlin: Yeah, so I spent about 25 years working in tech. I started out as a software engineer writing code for a living, and over time moved into management roles, and eventually into executive leadership. Most recently, I was a VP of Engineering at Adobe Systems. During that time, I definitely saw this interesting thing happening where there was a decline happening in the number of women coming into the field. There’s a lot of research that backs this up, but there are just fewer women studying computer science. Not that that’s the only way you get into tech, but it is definitely a key way, here in Silicon Valley, to get into tech.

So, there’s a decline happening with the number of women who are into the field, and at the same time, women leave tech at twice the rate of men at that mid-career point. As a result, over the 25 years that I spent working in tech, I really saw the impact. I saw that there were a lot fewer women around and less diversity in general.

Beliefs that have held leaders back from creating an inclusive workplace

Poornima Vijayashanker: Were there specific problems that maybe you incurred or you saw happening within the companies?

Karen Catlin: Yes. And I worked for some really good companies, so I don’t wanna throw my companies under the bus that I used to work for at all. But I will say that most of the men I worked with really, firmly believed that their company was a meritocracy, that you got ahead based on your merits, that if you worked hard and did good work you’d be recognized and promoted. But the numbers just really didn’t back that up. In any company there are more women in the entry level, and as you get up to the C level, it just declines like a pyramid. So, definitely there was something going on.

Personally, some of the things I witnessed…and I think this will resonate with a lot of women who are watching this, is something called bro-propriation where you say something in a meeting, as a woman, and it’s a pretty good idea but it kinda falls on deaf ears, doesn’t really go anywhere. And then in the same meeting, a little bit further on, somebody says the same thing, usually a guy because there’s mostly men in the meetings. A guy says the same thing in the meeting, and gets all the credit. We call that bro-propriation, because a bro has appropriated your idea, of course. That happened to me so many times.

Examples of unconscious acts that contribute to a lack diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Karen Catlin: Then there’s also this thing, and it still happens to this day, where people give me what is called an unconscious demotion. An unconscious demotion…I bet this has happened to you, too. You meet someone for the first time and you might say, “Oh yeah, I work in tech.” And they say, “Do you work in HR or marketing?” That’s an unconscious demotion. Nothing wrong with those fields at all, but if you’re a woman who’s already in a very male dominated field, like engineering, computer science, tech in general, it’s like this yet another reinforcement that you don’t belong there. That’s just not cool.

It happened to me just a couple months ago. I was visiting my husband at his office and I met one of his new colleagues. Sure enough, he said, “What do you do?” I said, “Well, I used to work in tech, was VP at Adobe for a long time.” And just told him something like that. And said, “Oh, well at Adobe, were you in marketing or HR?” I mean, literally, he said those words, and I just kind of…I wanted to punch him. But I ended up just sort of smiling and saying, “Actually, I was a VP of Engineering.”

So those are just a couple examples of things I’ve seen. I could share some more, but I think you probably have some more questions you wanna get to.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, of course. It’s unfortunate that you’re experiencing this and seeing this happen inside of your companies and other companies. Were there things that you were also seeing in the community at large over the years?

Karen Catlin: Yes. Definitely started seeing…First of all, in support of women as well as other kinds of diversity, there’s a lot of activity going on, a lot of conferences, a lot of discussions, a lot of research. All of that’s great. And I’m starting to see men wanting to also really get involved and help with diversity initiatives, help support women in their companies, and so forth. I saw that first hand. I also saw it at places like the Grace Hopper Celebration.

The Grace Hopper Celebration…I mean, you and I know. We’ve been there a number of times—

Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s the largest technical conference for women.

The origin story of Better Allies: The bingo card at Grace Hopper 2014

Karen Catlin: Yes, exactly. In 2014, there was something called the Male Allies Panel. It was a panel of men who were leaders at their company, and talking about what they did for women in terms of allyship, to support them, to champion them, and so forth at their workplaces. Unfortunately kinda fell flat. It fell flat because ahead of time, some women were upset that men were taking up valuable stage time at this conference, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure. Yep.

Karen Catlin: Some women also were concerned that these men really weren’t the best allies.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Karen Catlin: So they created a bingo card. They created a bingo card of phrases they expected those men to be saying that would show exactly how far they still had to go to become real allies. They handed the bingo card out, right? And of course, during that panel, the men were saying different things and falling short, and the women were checking off those bingo squares and started yelling bingo at different points during the panel.

Now, when I heard about this…I wasn’t at that panel, I sort of was following it on social media. When I heard about this, I sided with these poor men. These were actually good men, their hearts are in the right place. They wanna do the right thing. They just don’t know exactly what women need. They certainly don’t know what people of color need, or you put those together, women of color, and so forth. So, I see people wanting to do the right thing but not quite knowing what to do.

Why diversity and inclusion initiatives are important now more than ever

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. Why is this even important, right? There’s so many of these diversity initiatives that come out and benefits just are slow-coming or maybe not existent at all in some people’s eyes. Why do you think this is important?

Karen Catlin: Yeah. First of all, especially in the whole me too era right now, you kinda hope that people just wanna do the right thing, and it feels maybe like a moral imperative to support people of all types of backgrounds. So you kinda hope that. But at the same time, there’s so much research that shows that diverse companies are more economically profitable and successful, that there’s better decision making, there’s more innovation, there’s better problem solving. It’s so many benefits that have been proven in social science and economic research studies coupled with it’s the right thing to do. Then you layer on top of all of that, there’s a big talent shortfall in tech as well as across the whole United States in terms of we’ve got the lowest unemployment numbers in…I don’t know, in a generation. So, we have a problem finding the talent to fill a position, so why wouldn’t you want to cast the widest net possible?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: One more thing. Women can lean in all they want and all they can, but until we start changing our workplaces so that things that have always been done a certain way change, the women aren’t going to be successful. We really need to start looking at our workplaces and changing our workplaces.

Why workplaces are slow or resistant to change and embrace allyship

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. What do you think is hindering that change?

Karen Catlin: There are a couple of reasons. I would say one is this is the way we’ve always done it. Why would we bother changing? An example of that is, well, I’ve always hired the best people for my network. Why would I go outside of my network? Well, if you don’t go outside your network, and your network is your best buds, people who are probably just like you, you’re gonna continue hiring people who are just like you and you’re gonna have homogenous hiring, right?

So, if we’ve always done it that way, maybe that’s something that’s holding us back. Another is that there might be concerns that we are taking away something from men who are in positions of privilege right now, right? If we hire more women or people of color or whatever underrepresented minority you wanna fill in the blank there, if we hire more of those people, there’s gonna be less opportunity for me. That’s not exactly a growth mindset. If you think about hiring the best people, assembling the best team, the pie and the opportunities are just going to expand and there’s gonna be larger slices for everyone as a result. That’s another thing that’s holding people back.

The third, I’ll say, is that there’s just, at times, a lack of awareness. Unless you’re living these situations of being interrupted or having your ideas appropriated and so on, and so on, you just might not be aware it’s happened to other people. You might not be aware that…even walking around a trade show floor and seeing maybe a sexy pinup image on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker or something, or a laptop sticker even, you might just think oh, that’s sort of funny, not thinking about how a woman might feel is she sees such a sexualized image on a conference swag giveaway. So I think that we need to raise awareness as well.

Poornima Vijayashanker: What drew you into this?

Karen Catlin: What drew me into this is this desire, especially after hearing about the bingo card in, at the Grace Hopper panel of all the male allies, that, coupled with just hearing from man after man that I would just be talking to, maybe casually, or coaching, men really being curious of how can I help here, I really do care about diversity. I wanna create a diverse workforce. I wanna work with all kinds of people. I care. I’m a good person. But what am I supposed to do? There really seemed to be this desire without the information.

Why Karen Catlin decided to coach others into becoming better allies

Poornima Vijayashanker: Why did you decide to embark on this mission?

Karen Catlin: I decided to embark on the mission because I felt like I couldn’t not get involved. I really felt like I had a unique perspective. I had been working in tech for 25 years. I understood this industry. I also had this desire to really help make the industry more diverse. I really wanted to have an impact.

I started tweeting. After that Grace Hopper conference, I started a Twitter handle called @BetterAllies. I started tweeting answers to this question of what am I supposed to do, and simply talking about here are some simple, everyday actions you can take as an ally to be better for people of all sorts of underrepresented groups in tech.

So I started the Twitter handle. Then I started a newsletter and started getting some really positive feedback from both of those channels. People say Twitter is just a cesspool and everything, but I actually have fan tweets that I get.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice.

Karen Catlin: People like my content. So I got positive reinforcement there. My newsletter is growing like gangbusters, so super happy about that. Again, positive reinforcement. I just decided recently that I had to write a book on the topic, too. I had to take the best of what I learned on Twitter, through what I’ve been tweeting as well as the reinforcement I was getting there, and the content from my newsletter, and create a book for people to be better allies.

What is an ally and what is allyship

Poornima Vijayashanker: Let’s dig into what allyship is. What is an ally, and then what’s allyship after that?

Karen Catlin: Yeah. So, an ally is someone who uses their position of privilege to help someone who has less privilege. So, in tech, that typically is a white, straight, CIS man who has a lot of privilege. They can use that position of privilege to help others. They can do that by doing things like mentoring, sponsoring, championing, speaking out on behalf of them, looking for opportunities, connecting them to different opportunities, being just somebody who’s an all around good person, but not just sitting still, not just not being a bad person, but actually taking action to help promote other people.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. So taking initiative.

Karen Catlin: Taking initiative, yes.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You already touched on this, but who can be an ally besides the straight, white male?

Why you don’t need to be a leader to be an ally in your company

Karen Catlin: Definitely. So, allyship is not limited at all. That’s the beauty, it’s anybody can be an ally. You can be a leader at your company. In fact, I’ll share a quick story about a leader that was my manager, a senior vice president at one point in my career. I still remember this time. I had just started working for him. I was new to the company, and I was in a very senior meeting with him. I heard him say, “Well, what I learn from Karen is the following.” And then he said something.

I thought at the time, first of all, I didn’t say those exact words. So he took what I had shared with him in a one-on-one earlier and reframed it in the company speak. So he taught me how to speak the language as a result. But also, what a shout out he gave me. What he, the SVP, learned from me, was the following. So that’s a great example of how a leader who has a lot of cred within the organization can be an ally.

But an individual contributor can be an ally, too. An individual contributor sitting in a meeting and noticing someone might keep interrupting another person, might just pull them aside later and say, “Hey, dude, do you know you interrupt a lot?” And just raise awareness. So it’s really a job for everybody.

Why men care about being an ally

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I know we’re gonna go into more best practices. Thank you for sharing those. I also know that there may be some people in our audience or just wondering are men really interested in this and questioning if they really care. Maybe you can share from your experience.

Karen Catlin: I’m sure there’s some men who don’t care, and that’s fine. But there are so many men who do care. I get emails from people, they don’t even know who I am. They’re just emailing to or DM’ing the Better Allies handle, and they’re asking for advice. They’re asking for advice about…well, with everything that just recently happened around Judge Kavanaugh and the hearings there, how do I actually support women at my workplace who might be feeling upset about the way that Dr. Ford was treated? I’m getting emails, and messages, and questions of things like well, I just got this great job and I’m thinking about taking it, but hiring me is like the opposite of improving diversity, ‘cause I’m a white guy and I really care about working at a diverse company that values that, so help me…Should I take the job? And the answer was yes. If you want the job, take it and go in and be an ally and a champion for diversity from your position of privilege.

So, I hear about that. I get questions of just how can I…I want to respect women I work with. Is it cool to invite them out for coffee, for a one-on-one, just to get out of the office. Can I do that? So, there are so many men who are thinking about this very thoughtfully and really want to make sure that they are being supportive and doing the right thing.

How people can develop an awareness for allyship

Poornima Vijayashanker: That brings up a good point, that you wanna be well-received should you choose to become an ally. How can people develop an awareness and make sure they’re headed in the right direction?

Karen Catlin: Here’s what not to do. What not to do is to assume you’re the knight in shining armor riding in to save the underrepresented person from whatever-

Poornima Vijayashanker: Princess, yeah.

Karen Catlin: The princess, whatever. Because there are a lot of women who don’t need to be saved, frankly, and don’t want to be saved and so forth. And so, instead, what I recommend you do to make sure that you’re having the right kind of impact, is look for systemic changes as opposed to one off changes where you are maybe just saving the day. What I mean by that is, let’s say you notice that someone on your staff is being substantially underpaid for her grade level. You could make just that fix, potentially, if you have the budget and assuming you have control over their salary. You could change the budget for that one person, her compensation.

But better is to look more holistically at your department or the company and request that a salary review be done by gender and perhaps by other minority kind of aspects, such as race, or sexual orientation, and so forth. But make a systemic change, not just a one off. So that’s something that’s a best practice to follow.

How to spot or approach an ally to work for

Poornima Vijayashanker: For our audience out there who maybe want to work for an ally, how can they approach and spot one.

Karen Catlin: If you are thinking about in an interview setting, like let’s say you’re going to a company you wanna be working for, someone who is going to be a good ally for you, perhaps your manager, or perhaps coworkers, during that whole interview process, you can literally just ask them. It’s like, so what have you done to support a diverse, inclusive workplace here? Just ask them to give you some examples. And then I think you’ll be in a pretty good situation for seeing whether or not they’re going to be the kind of allies you want them to be.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, thank you for coming on the show, Karen, and sharing what allyship is. I can’t wait to read your upcoming book. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about it.

Karen Catlin: The title of the book is Better Allies: Everyday Actions for Creating Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces. It’s coming out early 2019.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Now, Karen and I want to know if you’ve acted as an ally inside of your company, what did you do and what was the impact that you experienced. Share it with us in the comments below this video.

That’s it for this week’s episode of Build. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode where we’re gonna be diving into more best practices for becoming an ally. Ciao for now.

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