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Everyday Actions to Become Better Ally at Work

In this interview I spoke to Karen author, speaker and leadership coach about her book “Better Allies” and everyday actions people can take in the workplace towards being a better ally.

Speaker 1: Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hello there, thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show, I’m Toby Mildon. And today, I’m joined by Karen Catlin, who is the author of a really great book called “Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive Engaging Workplaces” and she’s on her second edition. So hey, Karen, welcome to the show. It’s lovely to have you on board.

Karen Catlin: Toby, thank you so much, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Toby Mildon: I gave you the kind of the quick intro, but can you introduce yourself a bit more?

Karen Catlin: Sure, so in addition to being an author of Better Allies, I also do a lot of speaking about this topic of inclusive workplaces, especially how people throughout an organization can be more inclusive through acts of allyship. So I’m an author, I’m a speaker, and I’m also a leadership coach that focuses specifically on helping more women who work in the tech industry kind of level up their leadership skills and grow their career.

Toby Mildon: That’s great, that’s one of the reasons why I contacted you in the first place because that’s how I got started in the diversity and inclusion space. I was working in the BBC’s technology department, looking at gender balance within tech, and… Yeah, that’s how I got started and then branched out from there, really.

Karen Catlin: Well, likewise for me, I’ll just say, I used to work in tech myself. I was an engineer, Software Engineer, and over time moved into leadership roles, so I spent 25 years working in tech as a woman in a male-dominated industry. So this is what brought me into this whole field too, Toby. We have that in common.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. So, what led you to writing your book, Better Allies?

Karen Catlin: Okay, Toby, here is the thing, I never set out to write a book. That wasn’t a life goal or anything like that for me. As I mentioned, I had been working in tech, and in the 25 years that I spent in tech, I noticed a decline happening in gender diversity, especially in the software engineering departments that I was working in. There used to be a lot more women getting computer science degrees here in the United States, where I’m based, and it declined during the time I was working in tech. When I kind of started noticing this, I was a senior leader at Adobe. I was a Vice President of Engineering and I realised I had a role to play as the most senior woman in engineering at this large tech company. I had a role to play to help women across the company feel that they were supported, welcome, included, and could grow their careers at the company. So I started our employee resource group for women. I started mentoring a lot of women and kind of just advocating for gender diversity when we were talking about who would be giving presentations at the next all-hands meetings and things like that.

Karen Catlin: And Toby, I loved doing that kind of work so much that after doing that, in addition to being a VP of Engineering for a few years, one of them became my passion, and it wasn’t VP of engineering anymore. [chuckle] So I recognised I wanted to be doing this work in service of other women who wanted to grow their careers in tech, so I started my own leadership coaching practice about nine years ago now to focus on women who work in tech. And I love leadership coaching, it’s something I just, I so enjoy doing. But early on in my new leadership coaching practice that I was so proud of, I realised I had a huge problem. And the huge problem was that all of my clients were working in tech companies that, basically, the closer you got to the top, to the C-suite, to the CEO level, just the maler and paler the organizations got. And with all due respect to anyone who’s male and pale, you included, I’m pale myself. But anyone who’s listening who’s male and pale, I’m not about shaming or blaming anyone, it’s just that’s what the demographics revealed. And so my clients were working in companies that clearly were not meritocracies. Meritocracies where you get ahead on your merit, on the impact you’re having, on your contributions to the business, because the men were getting… The white men we’re getting ahead at a faster rate than anyone else. So that’s why I realised, “Okay, I can coach my clients, but to truly help them, I need to make their companies more inclusive.”

Karen Catlin: In fact, I need to make all of tech more inclusive. And maybe you can see me as… I know you and I are looking at each other, and maybe you can hear the little bit of humour in my words as I say that, it’s like, “Yeah, who was I to think I could make an entire industry more inclusive?” Yeah, ridiculous, right? I know, I get it. But I wanted to see if I could make a difference. And so… Hey Toby, these days, whenever anyone wants to sort of change the world, one of the first things you do is you start a Twitter handle, right?

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: So I started a Twitter handle @betterallies, and my goal, and this goes back almost six years ago now, my goal was to share simple everyday actions people could take to be more inclusive at work. My tweets would sound like this, like, “I pledge to review meeting invitations that I receive to make sure that women, as well as other underrepresented members of my organization, are included in the invite,” or, “I pledge to look out for interruptions in meetings and interrupt them with a simple, ‘Hey, I’d like to hear Toby finish his thought,'” for example. Or even, “I put my pronouns in my email signature to normalise that behaviour, even as a cisgendered person myself.” So I just started tweeting with these simple things I was noticing based on research that other people do. I kind of dive into research and figure out what’s an ally to do based on this research on gender or other aspects of inclusion in the workplace.

Karen Catlin: I’d also tweet cautionary tales that I’d see, basically, from media. An example is a few years ago when so much was coming out about Uber and the lack of inclusion at that company, just one… You remember, I know. Just one of the many things that was coming out at that time was that Travis Kalanick, who was the founder and CEO at the time, he was using the nursing mothers room in his office for his personal phone calls, which of course isn’t cool ’cause then nursing mothers can’t get in there to do what they need to do. So when I saw that being reported in the media I would go over to my Twitter handle and say, “I do not use the nursing mothers room for my personal phone calls, unlike like Travis Kalanick at Uber and blah, blah, blah.” Well, a little bit of a dig there. And anyway, I’ll get to the end of my story now, but I was tweeting a couple of times a day, then I started getting speaking invitations to speak about this topic of these everyday actions, so I started speaking at tech companies as well as conferences and so forth, and every time I gave a talk, Toby, someone would ask during the Q&A, “Hey, Karen, do you have a book, ’cause we want more of this? Your talk was great, but it wasn’t enough.” And for a few years, I’d be like, “No. Oh, sorry, no, I don’t have a book. No, no book. No, no book yet.”

Karen Catlin: So I finally did use that as like a call to action to write a book, Better Allies. And as you mentioned in your intro, it’s now on it’s second edition, and it’s been out for about two and a half years now total.

Toby Mildon: That’s brilliant. And I love how your examples that you gave, the things that we can all do on a day-to-day basis. And I think we’ll be coming on to what is an ally, and what an ally can be doing, but I just wanted to pick up on the use of language actually, ’cause you talk about male and stale. And I don’t know if it’s this… I don’t know if it’s an Americanism, but I know that in the UK I’ve had conversations with some of my clients about using that sort of language and terminology, and I’ve had at a conference about diversity and inclusion, the speaker was talking about pale, male, and stale, and I just… I was very cringing ’cause I was thinking, “That kind of language I don’t think creates unity, and it can be quite divisive.” I know where you’re coming from, and I think what you’re talking about is looking at seniority in organizations, what we’re seeing is that it’s predominantly male, and it’s predominantly people who are not from an ethnic minority background. What’s your thoughts on the use of language, and allyship, and creating that inclusion?

Karen Catlin: I know. And Toby, to clarify, I said male and pale, I didn’t say stale. [chuckle]

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: Just to clarify, because I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t know about the demographics at their companies who looked stale, acted stale, or so forth, so I do stay away from that because I do think that is a judgement call, but male and pale is not judgment, it is just the demographics. And the second thing I’ll say about why I choose to share that in the back story as I’m talking about my clients and the companies they are working on, is I wanna catch people’s attention. And by saying male and pale it feels a little bit like, “Wooh, where is she going with this?” So I do it to catch attention, very specifically, but getting back to your maybe overall question, is I do think language is very important, and allies need to pay attention to the language they’re using, ’cause there are so many phrases and terms, words that we use on an everyday kind of basis that aren’t inclusive.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: Just this morning, I was reading about Lufthansa, the German airline, and they… Here it is on… Right now, it’s July 2021, and they just decided to stop saying welcome ladies and gentlemen when they welcome passengers on, because of course, that’s not inclusive of people who are non-binary, so they are changing their intro script, their welcome script to be just like, “Welcome aboard, passengers.” Or something like that. Disney did the same thing recently too. Disney just announced for their parks, their theme parks that they will no longer say, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.” Or whatever their intro was. It was more… They now say, “Dreamers of all ages.” Something like that.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. No, we had exactly the same headline in the UK actually. A train company in the UK is not going to say, “Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen.”

Karen Catlin: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: And so yeah.

Karen Catlin: Love that. And the London Tube made that change a number of years ago.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: They would just say ladies and gentlemen over the loudspeaker in the stations, and they no longer do that.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. And that’s a really cool, the thing is I hardly ever use the London Tube though. I wouldn’t even know what the announcements are. Only 20% of the London Underground is wheelchair accessible, so it’s not brilliant if you’re a wheelchair user, unfortunately. Something that you talk about in your book is the P-word. What is the P-word?

Karen Catlin: [chuckle] The P-word.

Karen Catlin: P-word is privilege. So I call it the P-word because I think most people think about privilege in the same way you think about any other four-letter word, maybe, that doesn’t seem like you wanna be talking about it, so I had a little fun with that, with the P-word. And I think that most people don’t want to talk about privilege because we as humans tend to get defensive when our privilege is pointed out. When someone says… And I’m guilty of this. When someone says, “Karen, you have so much privilege,” my immediate thought, I kind of just tune ’em out and my immediate thought goes to, “Wait a second, are you calling me lazy? Are you saying I’ve never had to work hard to get where I am today? Are you saying I’m… Got a big trust fund that I can just tap into when I need money? Because that’s not true. I’ve had to work hard to get where I am today.”

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: So we tend to get defensive when our privilege is pointed out. Yet, here’s the thing, as allies, we need to understand how we do have privilege, and that not everyone has the same privilege we have. So that allows us to be more empathetic, that everyone is not experiencing life or the workplace the same way we do. And that allows us to figure out how can we act as allies, how can we open up opportunities that otherwise might not be available to people with less privilege than us. So in my book, as I was writing it, I curated a list of 50 ways you might have privilege in the workplace. And, of course, the top of the list is you are White and you are a man. Gender and race, that’s sort of the top of the list.

Karen Catlin: But it goes on to a lot more, I call it, nuanced things about financial privilege or about caregiving status or, here in the States, definitely your visa status, if you’re a citizen or if you are on a visa that employers have to sponsor here in the States. There’s so many ways people can have privilege that I think it’s important to elevate that knowledge, elevate that awareness so that better allies can be starting to evaluate their own privilege and start using it for good.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, I must admit, when I read the list of 50, I was thinking, “Wow. There’s 50 privileges here. That’s quite a long list.” And I was reading through them and I could really relate to a lot of them because I talk to my clients about privilege, alongside bias and micro-aggressions and all those kinds of things. And it’s tricky ’cause on one hand, I’m very public about having a physical disability and being openly gay and talking about the intersectionality of those both, but I do check in with my own… I need to check in with my own privileges because I was born in the UK, I’m White, I’m male, I’m cisgender. Being in the UK has meant I’ve had access to free education, I’ve been to university, I have my own apartment with a mortgage and things like that. And it’s really interesting, yeah.

Karen Catlin: Thank you for sharing all of that. So this list of 50 privileges, it’s in my book, but it’s also a free download, a PDF from my website, betterallies.com. And I assume you have show notes, you can put a link in case people would like to go and review their privilege. But I wanna ask you, Toby, was anything… So you shared some of the ways you do have privilege. Was there anything on that list that, maybe, was surprising to you or made you think about, I don’t know, your past background in a specific way?

Toby Mildon: Yeah, there was one on your list that actually reminded me of a boss that I had when I worked at the BBC. She’s one of the best bosses I’ve ever had and it was when I was first starting to work in diversity and inclusion within the BBC’s technology department. She was a senior manager in the division. And prior to working at the BBC, she used to work for a large telecommunications company, and she was head up in some sort of commercial department. I never really understood it. But anyway, all I understood was that her job was negotiating lots of contracts and things like that. And she told me this story about… She was doing a negotiating meeting. She had gone in early to prepare for the meeting, get the room ready, in walks the supplier. They assume that she’s there to make the tea and coffee, and they sit down at the table and they start talking about their negotiating tactics, all of their commercial secrets, things like that. She walks out of the room and walks back in and goes, “So guys, are you ready to start negotiating?” And they went bright red ’cause they were like, “Oh crap. We’ve just given away all of our trade secrets.” And I just…

Toby Mildon: I remember when she told me that story, I was horrified. I was like, you cannot be serious that she was treated that way, or people get treated that way. She then said, actually, they turned out to be a really good supplier to work with. But, yeah, that reminded me when I read through your list of 50.

Karen Catlin: Yeah, so as a woman, she was… The vendors assumed she was the tea or coffee girl, if that’s even the right language to be using, but in an administrative type of role, setting the room up, whatever. So they made that assumption and treated her differently initially because of it, and then look how she turned that into her advantage. I love that story. Thank you.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. No, it’s one that’s stuck with me for a long time. Yeah. So we were gonna talk about meetings actually, ’cause I said earlier that actually one thing I like about your book and the work that you do is that it’s very practical, it’s stuff that we can all do day-to-day. In your book, you talk about things like how can you go out and do networking, for example. And I love how you say “Hint, it’s best to network with people, diverse bunch of people,” for instance. But we’re all in meetings, aren’t we? I think we’re in more meetings now during the pandemic and the lock down because we’re all doing meetings on Zoom. We could probably cram in more meetings because we’re doing it online and not having to commute and travel and things like that. So from your perspective, what happens in meetings and then how can allies be better allies in meetings?

Karen Catlin: Yes, I agree we’re spending a lot of time in meetings. And gosh, even before the pandemic, it seems like most white collar workers spend the majority of their working day in meetings, at any rate, I have a whole chapter in the book on what happens in meetings, what is not inclusive about some of this behavior, and again, how allies can take action. One of them, and I alluded to this earlier, is the interruption. Interruptions happen. Interruptions could be someone just dominating the conversation. It could be someone speaking up over someone. It could be, in a virtual setting, someone trying to come off of mute, but someone else jumps in before they have a chance to say anything. There’s lots of different ways interruptions happen. But there’s studies showing that men tend to interrupt women more than the other way around and, don’t know, it’s maybe a cultural thing. It may be a physiological thing, where men have longer… Cisgender men have longer vocal cords, which means that their voices are deeper, more resonant, and they can actually break into a conversation and interrupt easier than women, perhaps. But regardless of the reason, it’s not very inclusive. So for allies, my recommendation is notice when interruptions happen, because I bet they’re gonna happen in the next meeting you’re in. If not, the one after that. Notice when they’re happening and then speak up.

Karen Catlin: Speak up with a simple, “Hey, I’d like to hear Toby finish what he was saying,” that’s a simple way to redirect the conversation back to the person who was interrupted. Another thing is, and this is one of the benefits of being online and being in virtual meetings, is we can use the chat function or some sort of direct message function in our virtual conferencing systems or something else if we’re on Slack or whatever, but we can use that virtual, that direct message capability to tell the person that we’re noticing who is dominating the conversation like, “Hey, do you realise other people have been trying to chime in? How about you and I both speak less during the second half of the meeting and listen more?” Give them a little nudge in that direction, they may not even realise they’re doing it. So there are many ways that we can step up to make sure that interruptions aren’t ruining a meeting and keeping valuable voices out of the conversation, so that’s one thing, interruptions. Another thing I’d like to highlight is the idea hijacking. Idea hijacking and Toby maybe this has happened to you before, I can think of times for me, but it’s when someone says something in a meeting and it doesn’t really get picked up, it doesn’t seem like it’s landing well, the conversation continues on in a different direction. But then someone says the same thing in the same meeting, and then they get all the credit for this brilliant idea or whatever.

Karen Catlin: So that’s an idea hijack and again, when that happens, the person who originally brought up the idea is like, “Why do I even bother trying? I’m not welcome here, I’m not included in this conversation.” And so again notice that is happening and perhaps as an ally, you can say, “Hey, I really like the way that you built on top of Deepa’s great idea that she mentioned earlier in the meeting.” So make sure Deepa gets the credit, and you can compliment the person if they are indeed adding on to the idea or, “Ivy, I see you agree with the idea that Deepa raised earlier,” something like that. So those are two things. One last thing I’ll say about meetings that’s not inclusive is this whole notion of needing housework.

Karen Catlin: In fact, I have a whole chapter on housework in the book, but housework are these small service-related tasks that have to get done for the health of a meeting, for the health of an organisation but they aren’t maybe someone’s job and they really aren’t in service for everyone else. Examples are things like, “Oh, no one’s job is to take the minutes for this, we need someone to take notes, who can do that?” Or, “Track the action items,” or, “Schedule the follow-up meeting or order food in for an in-person meeting,” or, “Oh, not everyone’s here who’s on the invite list. Who can go off and ping everybody who’s missing and get them to come in?” These are all housework tasks that if it’s no one’s job to do them, they tend to fall on the only woman in the room or a woman of colour, there’s research on women of colour are asked to do more of this work than others. And when a woman or a woman of colour takes on these service-related tasks, even though they might be peers with other people in the room, all of a sudden, they are put a lower level down from everyone else because they are doing stuff in service.

Karen Catlin: And frankly, a lot of the stuff is busy work that if they’re doing that, they’re not doing all the more important things that they could be doing for that meeting, contributing, like a first-class member of the group and that holds people back in their careers over time. So I’ll stop there, those are three examples of non-inclusive behaviour in meetings, and I think that allies can be on the lookout for these things and take action when they see them.

Toby Mildon: That’s brilliant, so that’s meetings. Now, if the person listening to us right now wants to go back to their organisation and encourage people in the business to become allies, what do they need to do? How do they go about doing that?

Karen Catlin: I know. [chuckle] Well, first of all, they can start doing it themselves. I firmly believe that there are role models around us in all situations, and we can have good role models and we have bad role models, so I think the first step is start doing this stuff and help normalise some of these kinds of inclusive behaviours if they’re not already being adopted across your organisation. But, oh my gosh, I have so many other ideas that I’ve heard from clients of mine as I speak. You can do things like create an allies employee resource group, you can create an allies discussion forum in Slack or Teams or whatever you use for your enterprise software. You can start a book club on my book, Better Allies, to start a discussion. So there are a lot of ways to raise awareness in addition to doing kind of walking the walk yourself.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. So this is the Inclusive Growth Show. Now, what does inclusive growth mean for you and how does that relate to allyship?

Karen Catlin: Okay, so growth means getting better, growing, getting bigger, better, and as I think about inclusion and growth, I firmly believe that top-down corporate initiatives are important. Initiatives that are doing things like increasing the diversity of boards of directors, for example, or senior leaders of an organisation, or top-down initiatives such as making sure that executive’s bonus compensation is somehow tied to them increasing diversity and inclusion in their teams, things like that, or top-down initiatives, those are great. But I also believe in grassroots and this is my message is employees in any organisation are the ambassadors of their culture. They are the ones who are making or breaking a culture in the individual interactions they’re having, whether those are in meetings or talking to vendors or recruiting candidates or speaking on behalf of the company, whatever those interactions are, the individuals are the ambassadors of an inclusive culture or a non-inclusive culture. So I really believe that to get the growth around inclusion, we need to empower and enable every single employee or most of them at any rate, when we can’t get 100%, but we’re aiming for most people to take small steps of allyship to be more inclusive, and that will lead to the inclusive growth we wanna see across organisations across our industries around the world.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. And if the person listening to this interview today really wants to be an ambassador for the culture of their organisation, that they definitely need to read your book, Better Allies, ’cause it’s just packed for the very practical advice on what you can do. So before we sign off, how can the person listening today subscribe to your newsletter and get a copy of your book?

Karen Catlin: So I have a website, betterallies.com, and that has information about buying my book as well as my newsletter, and by the way, buying my book, I know most of your audience is in the UK, it’s available on Amazon UK, definitely. So my newsletter, just very briefly, I wanna emphasise, Toby, even though I’ve written this book, I speak about Better Allies on stages around the world, virtual stages right now because of the pandemic, but I am still learning myself. I feel like this is a journey to become a better ally and we keep moving forward, and we’re all at different levels or steps along that journey, but I’m not done, and I don’t think I’ll ever be done. So I write a weekly newsletter called Five Ally Actions, and in this newsletter, I share what I’ve learned during the week about being more inclusive, what I’ve read online, what I’ve heard about from clients, and even mistakes I’ve made because by the way, you gotta get comfortable with making some mistakes, we’re humans, we’re gonna make mistakes, we’re gonna use the wrong term, the wrong language, we’re not gonna do things right.

Karen Catlin: And I make mistakes myself, so in my newsletter, when I make a mistake, and subscribers call me out on things all the time, I share what I’ve done, I share what I’ve learned, and I share what I wish I had done in hindsight sort of thing, so that people who read my newsletter can learn from my mistakes and hopefully not make them themselves. So I highly encourage people read my book, definitely, but subscribe to my newsletter as well, so that you get this regular reminder of your five more ways you could consider being an ally, and maybe one or two of them are gonna resonate with you and you can work them into your… Like how you show up at work the next day, the next week.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant and like you said it’s work in progress and that our job will never be done, I don’t think so, yeah.

Karen Catlin: Exactly.

Toby Mildon: Karen, thank you ever so much for joining me today on this episode. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, and I really do encourage you to buy a copy of Karen’s book, and thank you for tuning into our conversation today. Hopefully, it’s gonna help you on your journey for inclusion in your business. Thank you for tuning into this episode and I hope to see you on an upcoming episode very soon. Thanks very much.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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