224: Better Allies with Karen Catlin

March 3rd, 2021 · 1 hr 9 mins

About this Episode

02:31 - Karen’s Superpower: The Ability to Simplify Things

  • Simplifying in a Team Context

05:55 - Better Allies – Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces; Triaging and Curating Research

14:15 - Maintaining Anonyminity (at first); Prove It Again Bias

26:09 - Culture Add + Values Fit

32:11 - Network Effect: Venturing Beyond Homogenous Networks

41:58 - Doing This Work is Everyone’s Job

48:12 - People to Follow

51:13 - The Decline of Gender Parity in the Tech Industry

58:15 - Making Statements and Changing the Status Quo


Rein: Getting better at praxis: for every white dude with a beard you follow on Twitter, go follow 10 Black women in tech.

Damien: How bias can interfere with an action right before the action happens.

Chanté: We’re all allies. We cannot do this work alone. Today you might be the ally, tomorrow you may be the bridge.

Arty: Expanding our homogenous networks. Change takes courage on all of our parts.

Karen: Turning period statements into questions or adding “until now” to those statements.

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REIN: Welcome to Episode 224 of Greater Than Code. Take two.

So full disclosure, we recorded this or more specifically, didn't record this conversation so we're going to do it again.

I'm your co-host, Rein Hendricks, and I'm here with my co-host, Damien Burke.

DAMIEN: Thanks, Rein. And I'm here with my co-host, Chanté Thurmond.

CHANTÉ: Everyone, Chanté here. And I'm here with Arty Starr.

ARTY: Thank you, Chanté. And I'm here with our awesome guest today, Karen Catlin.

So after spending 25 years building software products and serving as a vice-president of engineering at Macromedia and Adobe, Karen Catlin witnessed a sharp decline in the number of women working in tech. Frustrated but galvanized, she knew it was time to switch gears.

Today, Karen is a leadership coach and a highly acclaimed author and speaker on inclusive workplaces. She is the author of three books: "Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces," "The Better Allies™ Approach to Hiring,” and "Present! A Techie's Guide to Public Speaking."

Welcome, Karen to the show!

KAREN: And it is a pleasure to be back with you and to be having this conversation today. Thanks so much for having me.

ARTY: And we very much appreciate you being here again with us.

So our first question we always ask at the beginning of the show is what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?

KAREN: Okay so, my superpower is the ability to simplify things and I joke that I think I acquired this superpower simply as a coping strategy because there's so much information out there. We're all bombarded with things and maybe my brain is just not as big as other people so I constantly am trying to simplify things so that I can understand them, remember them, convey them, and so forth.

And I'll share, I think it served me well, not only as I embarked on my computer science programming school and just trying to like grok everything that I was trying to learn as well as then entering the field initially as a software engineer. Again, simplifying things, divide and conquer, break things down into those procedural elements that can be repeated and generalized.

Certainly, then as I moved into executive roles as a vice-president of engineering, you're just context switching all day long. Again, I just had to simplify everything that was going on so that could really remember things, take notes on things, and make decisions based on what I thought I needed to do.

Yeah. So that's my superpower.

ARTY: That's a great superpower. So in the context of the workplace and you've got teams trying to things out, maybe a design problem you're working on, trying to solve. How does simplifying things come into play in a team context like that?

KAREN: Well, it comes into play a lot of ways. I'm remembering one example where there was some interpersonal conflict between two people and I was hearing both sides, as one does, and talking to them both. I got them both in a room because they just weren't seeing each other's point of views, I thought, and they were just working at odds to each other.

Hearing them both talk, I was able to say, “So at the heart, this is what we're all trying to do. This is what we are trying to achieve together,” and I got them to confirm that. That was the first step in simplifying just the discussion. They were getting a little emotional about things. They were bringing in a lot of details that frankly, weren't necessary to really understand what was going on and I was able to focus them on that shared purpose that we had for the project. It doesn't even matter what it was.

Actually, it was so long ago now I can't quite remember what the issue was, but I remember hearing afterwards one of the people say, “You are so good at simplifying things got down to the heart,” and I'm like, “Yes, I am. That's my superpower.”

ARTY: It sounds like even more than that, or maybe a slightly different frame of just the example you just gave. It's not only simplifying things, you are distilling the essence of what's important or what someone is trying to say, and getting at what's the underlying message underneath all the things that someone's actually trying to communicate, even if they're struggling too, so that you can help two people may be coming from different directions, be able to understand one another. That's pretty powerful.

KAREN: Well, thank you and I love the way you've just framed it, Arty and oh, those are big shoes to fill. Woo! I hope I've been able to do that in a number of different settings as I think back, but that's yeah, it is powerful. I think I probably still have some stuff I can learn there, too.

CHANTÉ: Arty, thank you for teeing up this because what I am curious about in relation to what Karen just mentioned as her superpower, which I think is amazing, is obviously, you have authored a number of books. When it comes to allyship, it sounds like this is a great time where we can get somebody to distill and to simplify and not to oversimplify because there's an art to it. But I would love if you could maybe take us down the pathway of how did you arrive at this moment where you are authoring books on allyship and maybe you could give us a little bit of the backstory, first and then we could get into the superpower you've used along the way in your tech journey.

KAREN: Okay.

CHANTÉ: And how you're coaching people.

KAREN: All right. Chanté, thank you. Yes, I'm happy to.

So the backstory, first of all, I never set out to become an author, or to become a speaker, or this expert that people tap into about workplace inclusion. That was not my goal. I was doing my job in tech. I was a vice-president of engineering at Adobe. I was leading engineering teams and realizing that there was a decline happening before my eyes in gender diversity.

Now I started my career in tech a long time ago and I started at a time when there was sort of a peak period of women studying computer science in the United States. And so, when I started my career, it wasn't 50-50 by any means, but there was plenty of gender diversity in the teams I was working on, in the conference rooms I was in, in the cube lands that I was working in and I saw a decline happening.

So while I was still at Adobe, I started our women's employee resource group—goes back gosh, like 14, 15 years now—and I've started mentoring a lot of women at the company and started basically, being a vocal advocate to make sure women were represented in various leadership meetings I was in, on stage, at our internal events and conferences, giving updates at all-hands meetings, like well, thinking about that. I love doing that work so much and loved doing that work less so my VP of engineering work, I must admit.

So about 9 years ago now, I decided to do a big change in my career pivot in my own career, I started leadership coaching practice. A leadership coaching practice focused on helping women who are working in tech in any capacity, any role. But women working in this industry, I wanted to help them grow their leadership skills so they could stay in tech if that's where they wanted to be and not drop out because they felt like, “I just can't get ahead,” or “I'm seeing all the white men get ahead,” for example, “before me.”

So I started this coaching practice. I soon realized, though that I had a big problem with my coaching practice and the problem wasn't with my clients—they were amazing. The problem, I don't think was me. I think I'm a decent coach, still learning, still getting better, but decent. And realized the problem really that I was facing is that before I could truly help my clients, I needed to make their companies more inclusive.

All of them were working at tech companies where the closer you get to the leadership team, to the C-suite, to the CEO, just the mailer and paler it got. With all due respect to anyone who's male and or pale, I'm white myself, anyone who's listening, who's male and/or pale, like that's just what the demographics were and still are in most of our companies.

Also, that coupled with this mentality of, “Hey, we are a meritocracy. People get ahead in our company based on their merits, their accomplishments, the impact to the business.” When in reality, that's not what happens because if it were then the demographics across the company would be uniform, regardless of what level you are at. So the white men were getting ahead more than others.

So I was like, “I need to make their companies more inclusive. In fact, I need to make all of tech more inclusive to really help my coaching clients,” and yeah, laugh, right? A big job, one person over here. Now, what's the first thing anyone does these days when they want to change the world? You start a Twitter handle. So I started the Twitter handle @betterallies. I started in 2014 with a goal to share simple everyday actions anyone could take to be more inclusive at work.

In hindsight, I was leveraging my super power as I started this Twitter handle. I leveraged it because I started looking at the research that social scientists do about diversity in the workplace and not just gender diversity, but diversity of all kinds. The research that shows that they were uncovering, that shows the challenges that people of non-dominant genders, as well as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, identity, age, abilities, and so forth. What are the challenges these people face in the workplace as they navigate that?

Others are doing this great research and I really am—and this builds on what Arty was saying—I used to think I curated this, but really, I was triaging the research. I was triaging it to simplify it, get it to its essence, and figure out with all this great research that gets published, what is someone supposed to do with it? How is the average person who works in tech supposed to take action with this great research that's out there?

So I triage and curate and I do it not just based on the research, but also what I'll call cautionary tales that appear in our news, in our Twitter feeds, and so forth. I'll give you two examples to make it real. One is based on research. There's research that shows that men interrupt women more than the other way around and so, based on that research, I go over to Twitter and I type in something like, “I pledge to notice when interruptions happen in the meetings I attend and redirect the conversation back to the person who was interrupted with a simple, ‘I'd like to hear Chanté finish her thought,’” and something like that that's research-driven.

Then the more, the cautionary tales that pop up in the research or in the news that we consume, I remember a few years ago when there was so much that was coming out about Uber and its non-inclusive workplace. Just one of the many things we learned about was that the CEO at the time and founder, Travis Kalanick, he was using the nursing mother's room for his personal phone calls. That's not cool because then the nursing moms can't get in there to do what they need to do. So I would go over to Twitter and just a little bit of snark added, I was like, “I pledge not to use the nursing mother's room for my personal phone calls unlike Travis Kalanick at Uber,” [chuckles]. That kind of thing.

So I'm just tweeting a couple times a day. I start getting Twitter messages to this anonymous Twitter account—by the way, it was anonymous at the time—and these Twitter requests would be like, “Hey, does anyone at the Better Allies Initiative do any public speaking?” and I'd be like, ‘The initiative? Huh, it's just me tweeting a couple of times a day. Okay.” But I wanted to speak about this topic and I want to retain my anonymity. So I would write back and say, “Yes, one of our contributors does some public speaking. We'll put you in touch with her,” and I go over to my personal Twitter account type something in like, “Hey, I'm Karen Catlin. I contribute to Better Allies. I love public speaking. What do you have in mind?”

So I started speaking on this whole approach of everyday simple actions people could take, the Better Allies approach, and every time I gave a talk, someone would ask, “Hey, Karen, do you have a book? Because we want more of this.” For a few years, “I kept saying, no, I don't have a book. I don't have a book. I don't have a book, sorry.” But I did finally write my book. In fact, I've written two books on the topic—"Better Allies" and also, "The Better Allies™ Approach to Hiring.” The Better Allies book, I just released a second edition. It's been out there for 2 years. I've learned so much that I wanted to do a full update on the book. So I've just released that a few weeks ago.

CHANTÉ: I have a follow-up question then, because Karen, you mentioned that you wanted to maintain your anonymity when you started off that handle and I would just love to hear maybe why that's so important when you're doing this work of allyship and accomplishing in this space?

KAREN: Yes, and I don't know if it is important for everyone—and I'm not anonymous anymore. I have claimed credit for this. As soon as I published my books. Writing a book is a lot of work; I'm going to claim the credit. But I didn't in the beginning because okay, I'm going to say this. A lot of people thought it was a man behind the Twitter handle and I must admit, I was kind of channeling white men that I have worked with over my career and thinking about what would they really do? What could I get them to do?

All of my tweets are first person, “I pledge to do this,” “I will do this,” I'm going to do this,” and there were people I have friends even who were like, “Hey, have you seen this @betterallies Twitter handle? I wonder who's behind it. I'd like to interview him for my podcast,” That type of thing.

So I think that there were people out there who thought it was a white man behind the Twitter handle and I was comfortable with that because not only was I channeling these white men I had worked with in the past, but I also think that there's power in men listening to other men. I'll just say that. I have actually gotten speaking engagements when I've said, “I'm a contributor.” They're like, “Are there any men who could speak because we think men would like to hear this message from another man.”

So anyway, that's kind of why I started out with that anonymous Twitter handle and with this character behind the scenes of this fake man. [laughs] But now it's okay. I say that I curate it, it's me, and I'm comfortable with that. I still do it first person because I think that white women can also be allies. We all can be allies for others with less privilege than ourselves in the workplace and I think it's important for us, everyone to be thinking, “This is a job I can and should do to be inclusive at work and to look for these everyday situations. I can take ally actions and make a difference.”

ARTY: How's that changed things like, revealing your identity and that you're not actually a big white dude?


KAREN: I know. Well, I never really said I was a big white dude! Or even a small white dude, or whatever. But I think it's fine. I claimed the association with the Twitter handle when I published my book and it was just time to just own it. It's not like people stopped following me or stopped retweeting or anything like that. It's only grown since then. So Arty, it's a good question, but I don't know. I don't know.

REIN: And this is more than a little ironic because when you were talking about your coaching—and I'm going to read into this a little bit, but I think you can confirm that it's backed up by the research—to appear equally competent or professional, women have to do more and other minoritized groups have to do more. So what I was reading in was that part of the problem you had with coaching was that to get them to an equal playing field, they had to be better.

KAREN: Yes. What you're describing, Rein is “prove-it-again” bias and this is well-researched and documented. Prove-it-again means that women have to prove themselves over and over again where men just have to show potential. This often happens and I'm going to give you just a scenario to bring it home.

Imagine sitting in some sort of promotion calibration discussion with other managers in your group and you're talking about who gets promotions this cycle. Someone might say, “Well, I'd like to see Arty prove that she can handle managing people before we move her to the next level.” When Arty, maybe you've already been doing that for a few years; you've already managed a team, you've built a team, whatever. “I'd like to make sure she can do this with this additional thing,” like, make sure she can do it with an offshore team or something. “I want to see her do it again.”

Whereas a man's like, “Ah, Damien's great. I know he can do the job. Let's promote him.” Okay, totally making this up. But you see what I'm saying is that this is what the prove-it-again bias is.

So whether it is women have to be twice as good or something like that, I don't know if that's exactly what's going on, but they have to deal with this bias of once again, I have to prove that I'm worthy to be at this table, to be in this conversation, to be invited to that strategic planning meeting, to get that promotion, and I don't want to coach women to have to keep proving themselves over and over again. Instead, I want to change the dynamics of what's happening inside these organizations so it is a better playing field, not just for my clients who are mostly women, but also, anyone out there who's from an underrepresented group, who might be facing challenges as they try to navigate this world that really has been designed for other people.

ARTY: Wow, that's really enlightening. I'm just thinking about this from a cognitive science perspective and how our brains work, and then if you're making a prediction about something and have an expectation frame for that. If I have an expectation that someone's going to do well, like I have a dream and image in my mind that they'll fit this particular stereotype, then if they just show potential to fit this image in my head, I can imagine and envision them doing all these things and trust that imaginary dream in my head.

Whereas, if I have the opposite dream in my head where my imagination shows this expectation of this person falling on their face and doing all these things wrong, I'm already in a position of having to prove something that's outside of that expectation, which is so much harder to do.

So this is the effect of these biases basically being baked into our brain already is all of our expectations and things are set up to work against people that culturally, we have these negative expectations around that have nothing to do with those actual people.

KAREN: Thanks. Arty, have you ever read the book, Whistling Vivaldi?

ARTY: I haven't. I am adding that to my list.

KAREN: It explores stereotype threat, which is exactly what you've just described, and the title, just to give you some insight into this, how this shows up. The title, Whistling Vivaldi, is all about a story of a Black man who had to walk around his neighborhood, which I believe is mostly white and got just the concerns that people didn't trust him navigating this public space, his neighborhood.

So what he would do, and I don't know if it was just in the evenings or any time, he went out to walk to be outside, he would whistle Vivaldi to break the stereotype that he was a bad person, a scary person because of the color of his skin. Instead, by whistling Vivaldi, he gave off the feeling that he was a highly educated person who studied classical music and he did that so that he could navigate his neighborhoods safely. It's awful to think about having to do that, but this book is full of these examples. It's a research-driven approach so, it's a great book to understand stereotype threat and combat it.

DAMIEN: So in the interest of us and our listeners, I suppose being better allies, you spoke about stereotype threat and gave an example there. You spoke about prove-it-again bias and specifically, with prove-it-again bias, I want to know what are ways that we can identify this real-time and counter it in real-time?

KAREN: Yes. With prove-it-again bias—well, with any bias, really. First of all, reminding yourself that it exists is really important. At Google, they found that simply reminding managers, before they went into a calibration, a performance calibration meeting, probably some rank ordering exercise of all the talent in the organization. Before they started a calibration meeting, they were all given a 1-page handout of here's the way bias can creep into this process. That simple act of having people review the list of here's the way bias creeps into the process was enough to help combat it during the subsequent conversation.

So I think we have to remind ourselves of bias and by the way, this resource I'm describing is available as a download on Google's re:Work website. I think it's R-E-: work. There's a re:Work website with tons of resources, but it's available for download there.

So that's one thing you can do is before a calibration meeting or before you're about to start an interview debrief session with a team, is remind people of the kinds of bias that can come into play so that people are more aware.

Other things, and I'll talk specifically about hiring, is I am a huge proponent of making sure that before you interview the first candidate, you have objective criteria that you're going to use to evaluate the candidates because otherwise, without objective criteria, you start relying on subjectivity, which is code for bias. Things will start to be said of, “I just don't think they'd be a culture fit,” which is code for bias of “They're different from us. They're different from me. I don't think I'd want to go get a beer with them after work,” or “If I had to travel with them and get stuck on a long layover somewhere when we can travel again, I don't think I'd enjoy that.” People just instead say, “I just don't think they'd be a culture fit.

So you get away from that by, instead in your objective criteria, looking for other things that are technically needed for the job, or some values perhaps that your company has in terms of curiosity or lifelong learning or whatever your company values are. You interview for those things and you figure out how you're going to measure someone against those objective criteria.

Other way bias creeps into interviews is looking at or saying something like, “Well, they don't have this experience with Docker that this other candidate has,” but really, that wasn't part of the job description. No one said that the candidates needed Docker experience, but all of a sudden, because one of the candidates has Docker experience, that becomes important.

So instead of getting ahead of that, make sure you list exactly what you're going to be interviewing for and evaluating people for so that the bias isn't there and bias, maybe all of a sudden Docker becomes an important thing when you realize you could get it. But it may be that it's the person who seems the most like the people in the team who has it and that’s another – you're just using that as a reason for increasing that candidate’s success to join your team because you'd like to hang out with them. You'd like to be with them. You would want to be getting a beer with them. Does that help, Damien?

DAMIEN: Yeah, that's very helpful. The framing is an absolutely pre-framing before an evaluation, before an interview what biases can happen. That's a wonderful tool, which I am going to be using everywhere I can. And then what you said about culture fit and really, every subjective evaluation is, I think the words you used was “code for bias.” Like, anytime you have a subjective evaluation, it's going to be biased. So being able to decide in advance what your objective evaluations are, then you can help avoid that issue.

Culture fit is just such a red flag for me. You said, I wrote down the words, “culture built,” right? Decide what the culture is – because culture is important in the company, decide what the culture is you want and then interview and evaluate for that.

KAREN: Yeah. Oh, I love that. Build the culture instead of just fit the culture. I've also heard people say, “If you ever hear someone say, I don't think they'd be a culture fit, respond with ‘Well, I think they'd be a culture add,’” or Damien, to quote you, “I think they build our culture instead of just fit in.” Really powerful, really powerful.

CHANTÉ: Yeah. I agree with you all and Karen, I'm not sure if you knew this, but one of the many things I do, which takes up most of my life, is I'm a DEI practitioner and I have a firm, and I also work in-house at a company, Village MD, as a director of DEI there.

So one of the things that I talk a lot about is culture add and one of the things I'd love to see more companies do is to think about like, basically take an inventory of all the people on your team and try to identify where you're strong, where you're weak, and look for the skills gap analysis, basically and say, “What don't we have here,” and then, “Let's go hire for that skillset or that expertise that we don't have that we believe could help us build this thing better this year.”

That's going to require people to do that exercise, not just once because your team dynamic shifts usually a few times a year. So if you're a high growth company, you should be doing that probably every quarter. But imagine what the difference would be if we approach interviewing and promotion building from that lens instead.

KAREN: Yeah, and Chanté, the way you framed it is amazing. I love it. You said, “What do we not have that we need to build our product to deliver to our customers?” I don't remember the exact words you used, but that I think is important because I've also, in conversations I've had around culture fit and culture and everything, someone say to me, “Well, wait a second, Karen, what if you we're evaluating a white supremacist? It's clear, there are white supremacists and we don't have one of those yet on the team. Does that mean we should open the doors and let them in?”

That's when it's like, you can use the way you've just framed as “Well, if we're building a product for white supremacists, then yeah, probably.” But to be more serious about this, it's like what's missing from our team structure, from the diversity within this team, that is going to allow us to deliver on our product, on our offering better? I think that's important.

Another lens to apply here is also you can still do values fit. Make sure people fit with the values that you have as a company and that should allow you to interview out people who don't fit with your values and just to use that example of a white supremacist. That would be the way to do that, too.

REIN: I think it's really important to say that ethics still matters here and values fit as a way to express that. One of the things that I would maybe caution or challenge is—and this isn't a direct challenge to you, Karen, I don't think—but it's been popular in the industry to try to remove bias from the equation. To do debiasing training and things like that and I think that that's the wrong way to go because I don't think it's cognitively possible to remove bias. I think instead what we should do, what I think that you're talking about here is being aware of the biases we have. Accounting for them in the way that we hire, because the same heuristic that leads to a bias against certain demographics is the one we use to say, “We don't want white supremacists.”

KAREN: Yeah. Plus a hundred, yes. [laughs] I agree. What I was going to say, Rein to build on what you just shared is that it's important to see things like color, for example, to understand. Even if you feel you're not biased, it's important to see it, to see color, to see disability, to see someone who is going through a transition, for example, on their identity.

It's important to see it because that allows you to understand the challenges that they are facing and if you say, “I don't see color, I just see them as their new identity, post-transition. I don't see their disability; I just see the person,” it negates the experience they're having, as they are trying to navigate the workplace and to be the best allies, you need to understand the challenges people are facing and how you can take action to help them either mitigate the challenge, get around the challenge, whatever that might be, or remove the challenge.

ARTY: So you're not being empathetic to the circumstances by pretending that they don't exist.

KAREN: Yes. Well said, yes.

REIN: It’s the idea that you can be on bias that I think is dangerous. I want to call back to this idea of a meritocracy; the idea that every choice we make is based on merit and that whatever we choose is indicative of the merit of that person is the bias that is harmful.

KAREN: Woo, yes. I can't wait to refer to that. I can't wait to come back and listen to you. What you just said, Rein that is powerful.

REIN: Because becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? We're a meritocracy so everything we've chosen is means – if we chose someone that means that they have merit by definition. There's no way out of that trap.

KAREN: Right on.

CHANTÉ: Yeah. When you say that, it makes me think, too of just the sort of committal to always transforming and iterating. So if you come in the door saying, “Listen, there's no way we can eliminate bias all the time.” We're going to make the assumption that we're always being biased and therefore, what things can we put into place and what tools can we use? What resources can we leverage here to make sure that we're on a pathway for greater inclusion, greater accessibility? Therefore, making our organization more diverse and more innovative.

I think, like Rein, I just want to really underscore that because that is something that I've had to really try to lead with versus add to the conversation later. So I'm appreciating that you brought it up today. Thank you.

REIN: It’s like some of the choices, some of the evaluations we're making are subjective. We can't make them objective in every case; I think what we want is a framework that allows us to do these subjective evaluations in a way that accounts for bias.

DAMIEN: So that's amazing. Where do we go from here?

ARTY: One of the things we talked about last time with regards to various people getting promoted, this effect of maler and paler as you get closer to the C-suite, is that one of the effects of that is when you're sitting down to hire someone, well, who do you know? Who's on the list of people that I know within my network? So one of the huge biases we end up having isn't necessarily a cognitive bias, it's just a effect of where our attention has been and who we've been hanging out and who we have relationships with that are preexisting.

These existing network effects also keep us in the thinking and stuff and making decisions within the context of those networks. We promote people that we know. We promote people that we have relationships with. So even just some of the dynamics of if you've got existing C-suite dynamics that is dominated by men and you've got these dynamics where it’s difficult for men and women to have relationships for various reasons, things that get complicated, that those sorts of things can end up creating a self-reinforcing effect, too.

I'm wondering what are some of your thoughts on some of the ways that we can expand our networks and expand the people that we know to shift some of those systemic effects?

KAREN: Yeah. Most of us have homogenous networks. Homogenous networks meaning people who are just like us because we have something in common with them, whether that is hobbies that we share, music we like talking about, food we like to go out to enjoy whatever we have things in common. So most of us end up having a –and it's true. Most white people have networks that are full of other white people and this also is friendship circles. There's again, social science research out there that shows that we tend to have networks full of people just like us.

As you just were saying, Arty this impacts so many aspects of work in terms of who we hire, who we recommend, who we promote, who we even ask to take on some like stretch assignment or tasks such as giving the update at the all-hands meeting for our team, or going in and exploring some new technology that might be on the horizon that we could leverage. Who are we going to trust with these stretch assignments are people that we know and the people that we know are the people in our network. So it is important to look to diversify our network. There's so many ways to do this.

When I give talks, I share some of these ways. One is literally when new people join your team or from a different demographic than you, get to know them and get to know their work and their career goals and down the road, look for how you might be able to connect some dots. But really, take the time to get to know people who you might otherwise just like, “Oh yeah, they're joining the team, whatever,” but set up that virtual coffee or whatever.

The other thing you can do is join Slack groups or other discussion forums at your company for people from that demographic. After checking first, if you'd be welcome and invited, of course, but many of these groups will be open to allies and if you are wanting to join that discussion groups so that you can sort of understand the conversation, understand the challenges, get to know some of this talent. That's a great way to do it.

You can also go to conferences that are designed for members of other groups that you're not a part of. Again, asking first permission, if you'd be welcome as an ally, but in tech, there's so many of these, but there's lesbians who tech, there are Black women in tech or Black coders conferences. There are Latinas in tech. Meetups and things like that. So there's so many opportunities to go and hear incredibly talented speakers talking about the technology and the projects and the work that they do and it's a great way to expand your network.

I'll share my favorite hack that I do when it's in-person and I'm going to a meetup or an event. I'm an introvert, I will let everyone know that. It's hard for me to go into a networking group like the meetup that's happening and there's some pizza and some drinks before it starts, or that conference reception. It's hard for me to go into a room like that.

So when I do, I quickly scan the room and I look for someone who's standing by themselves or sitting by themselves, who is from a different demographic and I go over and say, “Hi.” That's the easiest introduction for me as an introvert is to go find someone who's all by themselves and maybe feeling a little awkward that they're all by themselves too and it's a great way to strike a conversation and again, to expand my network, meet some new people, not just my friends that might be coming to the same event.

DAMIEN: So one of the things that I want to call attention to, too with what you're saying there is that this marginalization and privilege is self-reinforcing. You don't have to have – even though we all have cognitive biases, they aren't actually necessary for marginalization and privilege to self-reinforce and in fact, because that actually takes effort to undo these things. If we just go along, if we pretend not to see color, or whatever, we are actually reinforcing the problems that exist.

KAREN: Yeah, and Damien, on that note. In my book, and it's also a free download on my website, betterallies.com. I have a list that I've curated of 50 ways you might have privilege in the workplace. I like people to read through this list and think about all the ways they have privilege that others might not. The top of the list are “I'm a male,” and “I'm white,” and those are the top two things. But then it gets into more nuanced things and nuanced things being, “I'm not the primary caregiver for someone else.” Well, why is that something we should be aware of as allies? Well, when you're the primary caregiver, that means you may have to drop things at a moment's notice to take a child or a parent to a doctor's appointment, for example, or you might be interrupted in your work. So there's privilege when you don't have that caregiving responsibility.

Another one is that you actually have budget enough spare money so that you can do after work outings with a team that aren't company sanctioned. Like, “Yeah, I can afford to go out to dinner,” and gosh, this all sounds so weird now with the pandemic and how long it’s lasting. But “Yeah, I can go out for drinks or dinner with my team after work and pay my way,” or “I can do that whitewater rafting trip on the weekend that people are getting together with.” Even though it's not company work, it's still networking and that builds bonds that builds relationships and sure, work is going to be discussed.

It also includes things such as “I am not holding a visa,” which means that I have confidence that I maybe can take some risks with my career. “I can move teams, move to another manager, try something new out because I have confidence that I'm not going to potentially lose my job, which means losing my visa, which means losing my ability to live in the United States.”

So there's so many ways that we have privileged that I think at first blush, we might not realize and I think building on your point, Damien it's important for us to understand this privilege so that we can be understanding of how and why we should be diversifying our network and getting to know people who have different levels of privilege than ourselves.

REIN: And if you're like a white dude who's like, “This is a lot to keep track of.” Yes. When you don't have them, it's obvious.

KAREN: Yeah, you can be oblivious. Otherwise – not that you would be, Rein. I'm not saying that, but one can be very oblivious.

REIN: I’m probably oblivious of like, at least 30 of them, so.

DAMIEN: For people who are marginalized every axes, we really cannot be unaware. It's dangerous. Those of us who were unaware of it, suffer disastrous consequences. So in places where you are privileged, if one of the privileges is to not be aware of it and yes, it is a lot to keep track of and yes, as everybody else has to keep track of that stuff.

KAREN: Yeah, and building on what you both just said, this is just like technology in some ways and let me explain what I mean by that. Let's not take it out of context because there's some nuanced stuff I'm about to share. But in tech, there are so many areas of specialty, whether that is in data science or product security or accessibility related engineering or internationalization engineering and, and, and like, there's so many areas of expertise.

And Rein, you’re like, “As a white guy, how am I supposed to keep track of all of this?” Well, it's hard. I get it because the field keeps changing, things keep getting innovated on or brought to the surface and the same thing, I'm sure that Chanté sees this in the DEI space. We are learning all the time about how to create more inclusive workplaces where everyone can do their best work and thrive. It's the same as like what am I learning about writing the right kind of code that is going to have lasting impact, that is going to not cause incidents over the weekend [chuckles] when we all want to be doing something else? When it's not going to down the road because technical debt that is going to have to be retired?

So yeah, it's hard work. I don't mean to say it's not, but we need to make sure we have people who are thinking about this around us, who are reminding us, who are teaching us the best practices so that we are getting ahead of this versus falling behind.

REIN: One of the things you said last time that I really want to make sure we bring back up is that doing this work is everyone's job.

KAREN: Yes. Yeah, and Rein, I think we got into that conversation talking specifically about product security, software security. You can have a team of people who are software security specialists/experts. In fact, when I was at Adobe in my department, that was one of the groups in my department was cross-engineering product security specialists and they know this stuff. They are paying attention to the landscape. They know when those zero-day incidents happen and what the response is like, and what bounties are being paid and they know all of that because they love it. They're paying attention to it, but they can't solve the problem for the whole company. They cannot make sure that every piece of code is hardened so that the viruses don't get injected. There aren't security violations.

What they need to do is educate others, be there to support them when things go bad. But it's really about educating every engineer to be using the libraries the right way, to be allocating memory in the right way, whatever so that we don't have those security violations and it's the same thing with being inclusive.

I have so much respect for anyone and Chanté, it sounds like you do this work, but like, you are responsible for diversity at a company and are looking top down at what are the measurements we're going to have? What are the quarterly or annual goals that we want to have to improve our diversity? How are we going to measure that, make it happen?

But we also need people in every corner of the organization, in every code review meeting, in every interview debrief, in every casual hallway conversation, or a chat in a Slack, we need all of those people to realize they have a role to play in being inclusive and have some awareness of what it looks like to not be inclusive. What someone from a different demographic is experiencing in a way you might not and what are some of the ways you can take action?

So I see so many parallels there and I firmly believe, it's something I say all the time like, you don't have to have the words “diversity inclusion” belonging on your business card to make a difference. It's inclusion as a job for everyone.

CHANTÉ: Yeah. That's one of the things I wrote down that I wanted to make sure that we directed folks to. I love that on your website. That was one of the things that before I ever even knew you were going to be a guest here. That's why I started following you. I love that and I want to actually dive into that because one of the things that I hear often from people when I'm doing this work, they're like, “You're so good at this.” I'm like, “Yeah, but this is a skill that you have to work towards.”

So it's just like any other thing you want to make a lifestyle. You have to wake up that day and make a decision. If you're somebody who wants to eat healthier, then you wake up every morning and you have decisions to make. If you are a yogi like me, you might decide that you want to get on your yoga mat or you might want to pick up a book and read the philosophy instead. So it's a lifestyle.

I'd love it if you could maybe tell us a little bit about your journey because it's humbling to hear that you got into this work knowing that you wanted to coach women in tech, but you didn't necessarily aspire to be thinking about and writing about allyship, but that became a part of it. So what are some things that you did early on, or what are some things that you're doing now in terms of showing up every day and being a better ally?

KAREN: Yeah. I think that one thing you have to be comfortable with and it's hard, but I do this a lot is being an ally means realizing you're going to be wrong some of the time, because you are constantly stepping outside of that comfort zone that is just so safe—"I know how to navigate this kind of conversation, using these kinds of words and everything”—and you have to keep stepping outside that comfort zone so that you are taking some risks and you're going to make some mistakes. You are.

I make them pretty regularly. I might put something in a newsletter. I send out a weekly newsletter called 5 Ally Actions with 5 ideas and things people can take and I get emails back from people who disagree with me or say, “If I had written that, I would have changed it slightly this way,” or whatever, and I'm comfortable with that because I approach everything with this mindset of curious, instead of furious. I want to be curious about why someone's giving me the feedback and what's underneath there and what can I learn from it as opposed to getting furious at them for giving me feedback and like, assaulting my expertise, or whatever, or my voice.

So curious, not furious, I think is an important thing here and I want to give a shout out. I learned that phrase from a podcast I was listening to and it was Kat Gordon, who has something called The 3% Movement, which is all about getting more gender diversity in the creative industry, like the ad industry. So hat tipped to Kat Gordon for that.

So getting back to you got to get comfortable with making mistakes and when we make a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize. Heartfelt apology, folks. Apologize and then figure out what you're going to do differently the next time. That's what it's all about.

So the journey is real. No one ever gets an ally badge or an ally cookie. In fact, I will tell you, I recently searched on LinkedIn in job titles for ally. I was curious to see how many people put in their job titles. There are people out there who have claimed it and I don't think that's right. Unless someone else has told them that, in which case, okay, someone else has said, “You are an ally,” maybe you can put that in your title and claim the badge, but it's really not about that.

It's about being on a lifelong journey really, to be inclusive, to keep learning, to keep understanding how things are changing, and not putting the spotlight on yourself. Opening the doors for other people and just stand right behind that door and realizing that it's not about you. It's so hard to do this at times because we all want to be like, “Hey, look at the cool thing I just did for somebody else.” We want that feedback, but being an ally means stepping out of the limelight and letting someone else shine.

CHANTÉ: Those are great. Thank you so much, Karen, for that. I want to ask one more question since we're there. In terms of not making it about ourselves and not necessarily centering ourselves and taking action in the moment and not giving ourselves the allyship title, if you will, who are some people that you either align yourself with or that you learn from, whether it's up close and personal or from a distance? Like who are people that you feel are providing you with gems and knowledge so that you are then sharing with folks like us, that we can at least either put in the show notes or give a shout out to?

KAREN: Yes! Oh, I love this. So many people. One, I will say right off the bat is Minda Harts. Minda Harts is a woman, a Black woman, and she wrote a book called The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Get a Seat at the Table, I think is the byline. She and I spoke on a panel together a few months ago and I learned so much from her. I learned a lot from reading her book about the experience with Black women in the workplace, but then also, on the panel and since then, I feel that we have a nice professional, Twitter kind of friendship going on, which I just value so much. So I learned from her and what she shares all the time.

Another person I learned from is Jeannie Gainsburg. Jeannie Gainsburg is an LGBTQ educator and wrote a book called The Savvy Ally and The Savvy Ally is all about – the funny thing is she and I connected. We realized we went to college together or the same class, but we didn't know each other in college, but we have the same mindset of understanding something and then distilling it into how an ally can show up. With her perspective, it's all about being an ally for the LGBTQ community and I've learned so much from her. In fact, I've quoted both Minda and Jeannie in my second edition pretty heavily.

I also have learned a lot from David Smith and Brad Johnson. They recently published a book called Good Guys and their approach is also incredibly similar to mine, but they focus completely on how men can be allies for women and they don't focus on other aspects of allyship. But very much I learned about, they're the guys who are talking to other guys and basically saying, “Hey dude, it's your responsibility as a man in a professional setting to be an ally.” Like, it's part of your job to meet with the women on your team and sponsor them and support them. So, they tell it in a real way.

Oh my gosh, I feel like I learned from so many other people, too and I'm forgetting, I'm not thinking holistically. So anyway, those are four people it's nice to give shout outs to.

CHANTÉ: We put you on the spot so thank you, Karen. [laughs]

KAREN: Okay. Here's another one. Corey Ponder, he works in tech, but he also does speaking and writing about diversity and inclusion on the side and he is a Black man. I just learned about his experience and perspective in such a real, raw way and I value that a lot.

DAMIEN: Karen, I'd like to ask you a bit about something you brought up really early in our conversation today. You mentioned that before you got into this work with Better Allies and that sort of work, before you became a executive coach, leadership coach, you noticed a decline in gender parity in the tech industry. Can you talk about what that decline was, how it might've happened?

KAREN: Yeah. So first of all, Damien a question for you. Were you surprised when I said that?

DAMIEN: [chuckles] Well, no, not at all. I actually just today read about one of the earliest computers at NASA which is a woman, a Black woman, that the astronauts explicitly by name depended on, for example, Apollo 13. So I wanted to hear your story about what happened.

KAREN: Yeah. Okay, okay. I asked only because there are many people who, when I just drop that into the conversation, they ended up coming back to it minutes and minutes later or towards the end of any kind of interview. At any rate, what happened?

So I have theory and actually I gave a TEDx talk about this, exploring the theory. I won't do all 20 minutes of my TEDx talk, but when I decided to study computer science, I was a senior in high school trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life kind of thing, what I wanted to study in college. My father said to me, “Hey, well, Karen, you're really good at math and you enjoy making things. You're always crafting and sewing and knitting, and you like solving problems. I've just been reading this article about this new field called computer science which seems like it would combine all the things you're good at and maybe you would enjoy making software and by the way, this is what people earn in this field.” [chuckles]

I have to admit, I grew up in a very humble financial household and so, I wanted to make sure I could support myself and earn a living when I graduated from college. So I'm like, “Okay, I'll study computer science. I'll learn how to build software.” That was 1981, the year I graduated from high school.

Now get this, I had never touched a computer. Okay, we didn't have – I mean, 1981 was the year the IBM PC was released into the field. The Macintosh did not come out until 1984. So in my home, we did not have computers in the part-time jobs I had after school and summers, no one had computers and certainly, we didn't not have computers in my high school where I could learn to code where it would probably would have been in basic.

This was a situation for many people across the United States. Going to college in the early 80s, if you wanted to study computer science, many people were coming with no experience. Maybe a little more than me. Maybe they had taken that basic class, but very little experience. It was almost like a level playing field at that point and we were encouraged to pursue this.

My graduating class from college, I went back through my yearbook not too long ago to count, there were 38% of the computer science degrees went to women in my class and that statistic 38% is very similar to what was happening across the whole United States. According to the Department of Education, the year 1985, when I graduated from college, 37% of all computer science and information science degrees went to women. So that was pretty good.

Now, fast forward 20, 25 years and that number dropped to a low of about 17%, I think and the overall number also went down of how many women were getting these degrees. And now, you don't have to have a computer science degree to work in tech necessarily, but in many tech environments and tech companies, the engineers are incredibly valued and are very visible and are paid very well. They are an incredibly important part of any tech company.

So my point is that there used to be a lot more women computer scientists and it did drop. I do think it's this level playing field that I started at, but the decline happened because I believe a society, we as a society, started thinking and encouraging our young boys to get involved with robotics, with tinkering, with coding classes, with summer camps where you might learn to do coding or programming robotics.

We encouraged our young boys more than our young girls and over time, that meant that a girl, if she wanted to go to the summer coding camp in her neighborhood, would show up and see only boys there, or see only a very small number of girls and be like, “Well, maybe this isn't for me.” Or coding assignments in colleges that were much more aligned with masculine interests and more feminine interests. Things that might be more – oh, I don't even really want to get into stereotypes. I don't even want to go there, but things that would be more appealing to an 18-year-old boy than an 18-year-old girl who just have different interests and just became self-fulfilling.

What we're seeing now though, is that graph is moving in the right direction. The numbers are inching upwards because there's been so much focus across the United States – and hopefully, around the world, but across the United States, in terms of gender diversity is important in this field and we should be welcoming of all and we're making changes to all of these programs and encouraging our young girls to study this field, get involved with STEM, and pursue it when they get to college and beyond.

DAMIEN: Yeah, you avoided giving an example so I'll give one that you reminded me of, which is for a very long time, the standard, the most common image used as an example of compression algorithms was that of a undressed woman and so, we can –

KAREN: Lena. Her name is Lena. Yes, actually I know her name. She was someone when they were working on an image compression algorithm like, “We need a picture,” and someone just grabbed the Playboy magazine from their cube, took the centerfold out, and used that.

REIN: You do.


Or at least as you did. The effect here is really interesting and also, really, it makes me very sad, which is that computing became seen as a prestige job. Once men realized that there was something to this, it requires expertise, they decided that they were going to do it and when they did—there's research that shows this both ways. When men enter a field, it raises the prestige and increases wages. When women enter a field, it lowers the prestige and decreases wages.

KAREN: Yeah, that's a problem, but real. I don't mean to at all disagree. It's a real problem.

ARTY: Just curious. Do we reinforce these things by saying them as a statement like that with a period versus bringing it up as a question?

REIN: Yeah.

ARTY: I'm just wondering.

REIN: What I’m trying to do is describe and not be normative, but I think that's a valid point.

ARTY: In my life coaching thing recently, we were talking about statements with periods and it's really easy to define the world of expectations of ourselves, define the world of expectations of everyone else for all time and all affinity as a statement with a period. As we go and do this, it creates these reinforcing effects, and then we go and do things and enact behaviors that reinforce those belief systems.

So we're sitting here talking about biases and how all of this stuff gets baked in her brain and one of the ways that it gets baked into her brain is by making statements of “Well, this is how it is period.” I realize you’re making a statement of something to challenge, but I think it's something that we really need to think about that if we want to change the status quo, it starts with reimagining it different. Coming up with a different statement, with a period even as a starting point, and then letting that lead to questions of how do we go and manifest this new reality that is more what we want.

KAREN: Can I embarrass myself? [laughs]

ARTY: Yes, of course.

KAREN: Okay, right.


KAREN: So I have two children. That's not embarrassing. They're in their early 20s now. That's not embarrassing. I had read, when they were younger, that there is research done that said that if you tell a girl just before she takes a math test, that girls aren't good at math, that her score will actually go down.

This is the embarrassing thing. So before dropping my daughter off for like her PSATs and SAT exams, I just said, “Remember, girls are really good at math and you are really good at math, too.” [chuckles] So maybe already changing the narrative by using different periods statements, too [laughs] making up alternate realities.

Oh gosh, I can't believe I just shared that story. My daughter would probably be so embarrassed.

DAMIEN: That’s a modern story and I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about there and I think Arty brings up an amazing and very valuable points. The suggestion I want to make in response to that is, because what Rein was describing is a fact and I’m sure it's important to know about and to know that it happened—and I'm already using that language now: it happened.

In the past when men went into a field, it became more prestigious and higher paid. When women into a field, it became less prestigious and higher paid. And that's what has happened in the past and by stating it that way, now we can go, “Okay, what are we going to do now?”

REIN: There's a thing I learned from Virginia Satir that I probably should have done here, which is when you find one of those ends with a period sentences Arty, like you're talking about, you add until now at the end. So when women enter a male dominated fields, wages go down until now.

ARTY: And now they go up. Now they go up because everyone wants women because they're so awesome. Women bring so much awesomeness to the table so wages go up. The more women you have, the better the wages.

CHANTÉ: Period.

KAREN: Yeah.


Yeah, and—yes, and—the other kind of way to look at this is, I've been doing a lot of work with how might we statements and so the question is, how might we change the trajectory? How might we imagine the future of work where all people and all identities are welcome and we are building towards a future that is literally more equitable and more accessible for all? So how might we do that? We can maybe answer that question today, or we can invite folks who are going to listen in to weigh in when we post this online and talk to us on Twitter.

ARTY: I love that, though. I mean, I think if we really want to change the status quo, part of that is realizing that we're the ones who make it. We're the ones that create our reality and our culture is just a manifest of all these beliefs and things that are in our head emerging from all of us. If we realize that we're actually the ones that are in control of that, that we're the ones that are manifesting that, then we can create any type of world that we want.

So what does that vision look like? Let's go up to the whiteboard and create and dream up the type of world that we want, the type of vision that we want, the type of company we want, the type of culture we want. Write those things down, make them real to us, start selecting and doing things that reinforce those visions and beliefs. But we've got to start with believing. It's possible. We got to start with imagining that reality is already there, that we're already there, that we've already created it right now and now we're just living it.

KAREN: 100%.

REIN: Well, I think that is a great sentiment to end our episode on. We should do reflections and thanks to Arty, I already have one. So I can go first, if anyone else wants to?

CHANTÉ: Take it away.

REIN: So my reflection and Arty, you really sort of brought this home for me with the last thing you said, is that – Karen, you said that your superpower is your ability to simplify things and I would offer that you have another one, which is your ability to translate ideals, values, intentions into actions. There's a word for that and the word is practice. So what I think we all need to be thinking about is how to get better at practicing.

KAREN: Thank you for that, Rein. In fact, I wrote it down because I clearly have to go look it up in the dictionary afterwards and become more familiar. So thank you. I learn something new every day and I've just learned a new vocabulary word and I'm honored. I don't even know what – I do know what it means based on how you used it just then, but I'm honored by your thoughts and your reflections to me. Thank you.

DAMIEN: Yeah, I'll build on that because I learned so much in this conversation today and I'm so glad we had it. Specifically regarding very practical things that framing with the one sheet of how bias can interfere with an action right before the action happens and what Arty said about our use of language.

I'm a certified hypnotist and NLP practitioner and so, these are the things that I've known, but hadn't applied. So just again, being reminded of them and being able to take that and go, “Okay, let me use these things in the service of this goal of being a better ally” to use your turn of phrase. So thank you. Thank you all.

CHANTÉ: Yeah, it's been a great conversation. Thank you so much. I'm so glad that we didn't record it properly the first time so I could selfishly join this conversation. Yes! I love it when things work out that way.

I really appreciated the fact that we talked about so many of the practical things, just what Damien mentioned here. We kind of reiterated some things I already knew, but could have an excuse to tweet out later [laughs] and that is just that we're all allies. We cannot do this work alone. Many of us, Karen, to your point of your story, that we don't start off doing this work, but the journey and the problem is big enough for all of us to take a part in it. What I love about where we are these days is that the world offers us so many resources, tools, and networks that we have a decision to make when we were talking about this lifestyle choice.

So today, you might be the ally. Tomorrow, you might be the bridge. The next day, you might be the person who simply passes on somebody's resume, but all of those parts matter when we're trying to imagine a different future, especially around technology. I'm really appreciative of the conversation and I'm looking forward to continuing it. Thank you.

REIN: You're welcome, Chanté.


ARTY: Yeah, we screwed this up just for you.

CHANTÉ: [laughs] Yay!

ARTY: So my reflection, I wanted to bring up the thing that I actually mentioned last time as my reflection, because I feel like it's really important. One of the simple things that we can do to make a huge difference is just expanding our network and there's so much limitation that's caused by these homogenous networks we have and staying within our circle and friends. Even though, it takes some effort to get outside of our comfort zone and meet new people and to build relationships with people we might not otherwise. The benefits that happen because of all those new relationship, connections are huge and it's totally worth it.

I love your simple trick at the conference thing of go find the person who's in the corner by themselves. Talk to them. They're the easy ones, right? I love that. Super easy, but I think change is one of those things that takes some courage on all of our parts to take one little bitty step that can make a big difference.

KAREN: Yeah. Arty, there's a saying that says, “When you step outside your comfort zone, that's where the magic happens.” So I think you're already a believer of that and I hope that it plays out in real life for you.

I'll just say to wrap up my reflection, I absolutely loved this conversation. I am glad we got to do it again, too. It's it was very different than the first time and I think it was absolutely wonderful.

So thank you everyone and if I think about, I learned something from all of you. The one that I think I will really be putting into practice is a combination of Arty and Rein, what you've shared in terms of if there is a period statement, how to turn that to more of a question, or to add to it to say until now. I want to try that out. I want to use that as I am speaking to people about allyship and navigating this on writing my newsletter. I'm not sure where, but it is something I want to try out and see how it – I'm sure it's going to be effective and I appreciate that. Thank you.

ARTY: Well, thank you for joining us on the show, Karen. This was a wonderful conversation.

KAREN: Absolute pleasure. Thank you, everyone!

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