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.

Karen Catlin is the author of a great book called “Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive Engaging Workplaces” which is now in its second edition. She is also a speaker on the topic of inclusive workplaces, especially how people throughout an organisation can be more inclusive through acts of allyship. Karen also offers leadership coaching that focuses specifically on helping women who work in the tech industry level up their leadership skills and grow their careers. Karen used to work in tech as a Software Engineer, moving into leadership roles, spending 25 years working in tech as a woman in a male-dominated industry.

I started off our conversation by asking Karen what led to her writing “Better Allies”.

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

I loved doing that kind of work so much that it became my passion. I recognised I wanted to be doing this work in service of other women who wanted to grow their careers in tech. I started my leadership coaching practice about nine years ago to focus on women who work in tech. And I love leadership coaching but, early on in my practice, I realised I had a huge problem. The 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, the maler and paler the organisations got. With all due respect to anyone who’s male and pale, you included Toby and I’m pale myself, I’m not about shaming or blaming anyone, it’s just that’s what the demographics revealed.

My coaching clients were working in companies that were not meritocracies. Meritocracies where you get ahead on your merit, on the impact you’re having, on your contributions to the business, because white men were getting ahead at a faster rate than anyone else. I realised, “Okay, I can coach my clients, but to truly help them, I need to make their companies more inclusive.” In fact, I need to make all of tech more inclusive.

There’s definitely some humour in that last statement. I was like, “Who am I to think I could make an entire industry more inclusive?” Ridiculous, right? I know, I get it. But I wanted to see if I could make a difference. And these days, whenever anyone wants to change the world, one of the first things you do is you start a Twitter handle, right?

Better Allies on Twitter

I set up @betterallies, and my goal then, almost six years ago now, 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,


I pledge to look out for interruptions in meetings and interrupt them with a simple, ‘Hey, I’d like to hear X finish that thought,

for example.

Or even,

I put my pronouns in my email signature to normalise that behaviour, even as a cis-gendered person myself.

I just started tweeting with these simple things I was noticing based on research that other people do. I dived into research and figured out what’s an ally to do based on this research on gender or other aspects of inclusion in the workplace.

I’d also tweet cautionary tales that I’d see in the media. An example is a few years ago when so much was coming out about Uber and the lack of inclusion at that company. Travis Kalanick, who was the founder and CEO at the time, was using the nursing mother’s room in his office for his personal phone calls. Not cool since nursing mothers couldn’t get in there to do what they needed to do.

I’d then tweet, “I do not use the nursing mothers room for my personal phone calls, unlike Travis Kalanick at Uber and blah, blah, blah” getting a bit of a dig there. I was tweeting a couple of times a day, then I started getting speaking invitations to speak about the topic of everyday actions. I started speaking at tech companies as well as conferences and so forth, and every time I gave a talk, someone would ask during the Q&A, “Hey, Karen, do you have a book because we want more of this? Your talk was great, but it wasn’t enough.” For a few years, I’d reply, “No. Oh, sorry, no, I don’t have a book. No, no book. No, no book yet.”

I finally did use that as a call to action to write a book, Better Allies. It’s now on its second edition and it’s been out for about two and a half years now total.’

Inclusive Language

I love how Karen’s examples are things we can all do on a day-to-day basis. I am also interested in how we use language. In the UK I’ve had conversations with some of my clients about the male, pale and stale terminology, which can feel divisive and doesn’t create unity. I wondered what Karen’s thoughts were on the role of language in allyship, and creating that inclusion?

‘I stay away from that word stale because I think that is a judgment call. Male and pale is not judgment, it is just the demographics. I choose to share that terminology in the backstory as I’m talking about my clients and the companies they are working on, and I need to catch people’s attention. By saying male and pale it feels a little bit like, “Woah, where is she going with this?”

I do think language is very important, and allies need to pay attention to the language they’re using because there are so many phrases and terms, words that we use on an everyday kind of basis that aren’t inclusive.

Just this morning, I was reading about Lufthansa, the German airline. 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 welcome script to be “Welcome aboard, passengers.” or something like that. Disney did the same thing recently too. They now say, “Welcome dreamers of all ages.” Something like that. And the London Tube made that change some years ago.’

That sounds cool, but I will also note that I hardly ever use the London Tube since only 20% of the London Underground is wheelchair accessible. Not brilliant if you’re a wheelchair user, unfortunately.

The P Word

We moved on to the next topic which Karen talks about in her book – the P word. 

‘P word stands for privilege. 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. It seems like people don’t want to be talking about it, so I had a little fun with that, with the P word.

I think most people don’t want to talk about privilege because we tend to get defensive when our privilege is pointed out. When someone says, and I’m guilty of this, “Karen, you have so much privilege,” I kind of just tune them 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’ve 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.

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. That allows us to be more empathetic, understanding not everyone is experiencing life or the workplace the same way we do. That allows us to figure out how we can act as allies and how we can open up opportunities that otherwise might not be available to people with less privilege than us. I curated a list of 50 ways you might have privilege in the workplace for the book. Of course, the top of the list is if you are White and you are a man. Gender and race, that’s top of the list.

But there are more nuanced things like financial privilege or caregiving status or, here in the States, definitely your visa status. There are so many ways people can have privilege that I think it’s important to elevate that knowledge and awareness so that allies can better evaluate their own privilege and start using it for good. The list of 50 privileges is in my book, but it’s also a free download, a PDF from my website, betterallies.com so people can review their privilege too.’

When I read Karen’s list of 50, I will admit I was thinking, “Wow. That’s quite a long list.” But I could relate to a lot of them because I talk to my clients about privilege, alongside bias and microaggressions and all those kinds of things. It’s tricky in some ways. For example, 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 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 an apartment with a mortgage and things like that.

I was also reminded of a story that a previous boss at the BBC told me. She had used to work for a large telecommunications company and headed up some sort of commercial department where her job was negotiating lots of contracts. She had gone in early to prepare for a negotiating meeting. She was getting the room ready and in walks the suppliers’ team. 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 and 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?” They went bright red because they were like, “Oh crap. We’ve just given away all of our trade secrets.”

Being a Better Ally in Meetings

Staying with the topic of meetings, due to the pandemic we’ve all been in Zoom meetings. Cramming in even more meetings actually because we’re doing it online and not having to commute and travel. I wondered what Karen’s perspective was on how allies can be better allies in meetings?

‘I have a whole chapter in the book on what happens in meetings. What is not inclusive about some behaviour and how allies can take action. Take interruptions. These 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 are lots of different ways interruptions happen. Studies show that men tend to interrupt women more than the other way around. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. It may be a physiological thing, where 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. Regardless of the reason, it’s not very inclusive.

For allies, my recommendation is to notice when interruptions happen, because I bet they’re going to happen in the next meeting you’re in. If not, the one after that. Notice when they’re happening and then speak up. For example, say, “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 know 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 idea hijacking. 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 get picked up, doesn’t seem like it’s landing well and the conversation continues 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.

When that idea hijack 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.” Again notice that is happening and perhaps as an ally, you can say, “Hey, I 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.

I have a whole chapter on housework in the book. These are 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 in 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 that shows women of colour are asked to do more of this work than others. 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.

Frankly, if they’re doing that housework, 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. That holds people back in their careers over time. 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.’

I asked Karen how people can implement this approach across an organisation and how can other people in the business be encouraged to become allies too? What do they need to do?

‘First of all, start doing these things yourself. Role model this stuff and help normalise these inclusive behaviours if they’re not already being adopted across your organisation. You can also do things like create an allies employee resource group, an allies discussion forum in Slack or Teams, or whatever you use. You can start a book club on my book, Better Allies, to start a discussion. There are a lot of ways to raise awareness in addition to doing kind of walking the walk yourself.’

We wrapped up with my perennial question for interviewees. I asked Karen, ‘What does inclusive growth mean for you and how does that relate to allyship?’

‘Growth means getting better, bigger. I firmly believe that top-down corporate initiatives are important. Initiatives that increase 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.

I also believe in grassroots and my message there is that employees in any organisation are the ambassadors of their culture. They are the ones who make or break a culture in the individual interactions they’re having, whether those are in meetings, talking to vendors, 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. To get the growth around inclusion, we need to empower and enable every single employee, or most of them at any rate, to take small steps of allyship to be more inclusive. That will lead to the inclusive growth we want to see across organisations and industries around the world.

Although I’ve written this book and speak about Better Allies on stages around the world, I am still learning myself. It’s a journey to become a better ally. We’re all at different steps along that journey. I’m not done, I don’t think I’ll ever be done, we all keep moving forward. I write a weekly newsletter called Five Ally Actions and share what I’ve learned during the week about being more inclusive. I even share mistakes I’ve made because you’ve got to get comfortable with making some mistakes. We’re humans. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to use the wrong term, the wrong language, we’re not going to do everything right.

In my newsletter, when I make a mistake, and subscribers call me out on things all the time, I share what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, and what I wish I had done in hindsight. People who read my newsletter can learn from my mistakes and hopefully not make them themselves. I send this regular reminder with five more ways you could consider being an ally. Maybe one or two of these will resonate with you and you can work them into how you show up at work the next day and the next week and so on.’

To become an ally and organisational culture ambassador, it’s definitely worth reading Karen’s book, “Better Allies” which is packed with very practical advice. To buy her book visit the website, betterallies.com where you can also sign up for her newsletter.

Everyday Actions to Become Better Ally at Work - Mildon