After spending years building software products and serving as vice president of engineering at 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 vocal advocate for inclusion. She’s a leadership coach, a keynote speaker and she just launched the book Better allies: everyday actions to create inclusive, engaging workplaces.
Q. Tell us where everything started, when you first moved to Silicon Valley. What was that experience like?
When my partner at the time, Tim, and I decided to move to Silicon Valley, we started applying for jobs, and our resumes were pretty much identical at that point. We had gone to the same school, got the same computer science degree and even worked at the same place in our first job out of school. We were interested in very similar roles, and applied to many of the same companies; during that process, one day, in particular, we were interviewing at the same company for software engineering jobs. We were in conference rooms next door to each other. On our way back to the hotel I asked him how he thought he had done in the interview, what had been his experience like. He said it had been tough, the toughest interview he’d ever had, but he felt it had gone well. That hadn’t been my experience at all. For me, it had been the easiest interview I’d ever been through. They hadn’t asked tough questions and everything had been superficial. It’s not that I think I’m so much smarter than Tim, it’s just that they asked him harder questions than me. In the couple of steps they took to walk from his interview to start interviewing me, they lowered the bar to the point of even helping me along, giving me hints to make sure I could answer. We both got job offers from that company, but I didn’t take mine. If the people that I would be working with didn’t even respect me enough during the interview process, what would it be like to work with them day to day? I was fortunate, I had another interview, which was really exciting, and went to another company where I ended up launching my career very well. But that’s a good story because it proves the bar was lowered for me for being a woman.
Q. So you started a career in tech, in Silicon Valley. What was it like being a woman at that time, in that position?
For most of my early career, I didn’t notice there was a gender situation developing in tech. There used to be a lot more women in the industry, actually, especially in the late 80s. Back then there were a lot of women getting computer science degrees and going into engineering jobs, but that number has dropped dramatically, and today we do have a gendered situation in Silicon Valley. There’s a lack of gender representation. For much of my career, I didn’t notice these problems. I was very focused, working through different jobs, raising my children and just being very busy. That’s why I didn’t notice what was going on until 2007 when I went to my first Grace Hopper Celebration – the largest conference for women in computing -, and I saw there was a whole conversation happening about how to best support, hire women and retain them in jobs. That conference in 2007 was a catalyzer for me to start a women’s employee resource group at Adobe, where I was working at the time. The goal was to mentor, sponsor, and advocate for women in the company, in whatever way I could as VP of engineering.
Q. Who were your examples of what a leader – an inclusive leader – should be?
I’ve had some amazing male managers through my career, but there’s one story in particular that really shows what an inclusive leader can look like. Soon after I joined Adobe through acquisition, in a senior leadership meeting I heard my manager say: “Well, what I learned from Karen is the following-”, and he went on to say some things. I remember thinking I hadn’t told him exactly those things, but I had said something along those lines not long before. He took what he’d heard from me and recast it into a strategic language that was going to be effective. I learned from him how to speak more effectively, and he gave me this incredible shout out. He was a senior vice president, and I was the new person who joined the team from an acquisition so it was credibility building. Plus, it made me feel good. That’s a great example of what an inclusive leader can be.
Q. Then you came up with the hashtag #betterallies, which you use to suggest everyday actions people can implement to shape their work environment and change the dynamics.
Getting involved with the women’s group at Adobe and mentoring all those women, I became more passionate about supporting and helping women than for my day job of VP of engineering. That’s why, six years ago, I ended up starting a new chapter in my career: being a leadership coach for women working in tech. I didn’t want to help people only at Adobe, I wanted to have a bigger impact on the industry and help women in whatever roles they were, in whatever companies. However, there was a problem — even if I was the most amazing leadership coach my clients would still be facing issues in their workplaces. Even the best of workplaces in tech are not the meritocracy the leadership teams want to think they are. They’re not necessarily places where a person will get ahead just based on their merits, hard work, accomplishments or the impact they’re having on the business.
In tech, as well as in other industries, there might be a lot of gender diversity at the entry level; as you move up into the leadership ranks, however, that ratio drops. I realized that people who have privileges and are in leadership positions in tech can make a difference, by thinking of ways that they could be more inclusive in their everyday work life — things they could be doing in meetings and interactions, hiring, going to events. There are all sorts of situations where biases come into play and we end up — without even realizing it — doing things that are not inclusive. I was also hearing from many people, especially men, that they cared about diversity and inclusion but they thought only the head of People Operations in H.R., could so something. Thinking about that I started the Twitter handle @betterallies, as well as a corresponding hashtag, to tweet about simple actions people can take that could make a difference. Things like asking if we are doing a salary review by gender and fixing inequities; if I notice someone’s interrupted in a meeting I’ll say “Hey, I would like to hear Fanny finish her point” and redirect the conversation back to the person who was interrupted. Simple things like that.
I curate ideas from other sources, and especially over the last few years, the sources have been bountiful. Every time a media report of harassment or other bias in the workplace comes out I’ll mine it, and I think about the everyday actions someone should take so this doesn’t happen. There’s research being done by social scientists on gender inequity, but also on the challenges that people from other underrepresented groups face, that can be related to race, ethnicity, religion, age; being a mom or not, being a parent or not. When that research comes out I immediately think of the everyday actions someone can take to make sure they don’t get into that situation or that they can respond to it if they do. I started the Twitter handle about four and a half years ago now, it became popular and still is. Twitter can bring out the worst in people, but my experience has been very positive. I’ve gotten a lot of support, not only in terms of retweets and likes but also people tagging their friends, recommending the account or even suggesting content. I was doing this all anonymously until I published my book, but people would send mediums and ask if anyone at @betterallies did any public speaking, giving invitations to speak, so I’d respond. I started doing some talks on this idea, and people started asking me if I had a book. I didn’t, so I decided to write Better Allies. I continue to tweet regularly, as well as sending out a newsletter every Friday called 5 Ally Actions, so there’s additional learning. Because I keep getting content, and I want to make sure it’s out there. It’s meant to inspire people to create a more inclusive workplace wherever they are. Organizations should take the steps they need to in order to be more inclusive, but your approach is that each individual can make a difference with small decisions that can shape the work environment. Can you share a few more examples of everyday actions that make us better allies? There’s a whole chapter in my book about language and how the language we use just conversationally is not always inclusive. The word “man”, for example. How many times do we use it expressions like “man hours”? Many people have moved from that to “person-hours” but it still comes up.
My daughter, who got her computer science degree in college last year, sent me a screenshot of a programming assignment she had gotten for her college class, and the instructions at the top read the words “Man up and edit the code”. Why does it take manly qualities to edit code? We should be careful of labeling professions by gender. My mother is older and has a lot of health support, and she’s always telling me about her “male nurse” when it’s perfectly fine to call him a just a nurse. Why do we say “female engineers” when it could be just engineers? It’s not necessary to call attention to the fact that a person is different than the norm. There are a lot of terms and expressions like these that sneak into industries and have become commonplace in tech. For example, “let’s use a blacklist to deny access to the server” — what will a person of color feel when they hear that? They’ll feel excluded once again. “Blocklist”, however, would be a good alternative, because you’re blocking access. I am fortunate to be in a Slack group for engineering leaders across the industry. It’s a very collaborative place, and collectively we put together a Slack bot that flags language we think is not inclusive and then suggests alternatives. I got permission from the group to open source that bot, so anyone who wants to make this work for their own company or any organization that has a Slack group, they can go to betterallies.com/language and find the instructions to download it and incorporate it into their Slack community.
What’s beautiful about the bot being open sourced is that each group can change it if, for example, they don’t agree with one of the specifications. It’s possible to just pull it out or edit it, and add new things based on a particular industry or what’s happening in a company. That’s an everyday action that would help implement a more inclusive language.
Q. We have also talked about choices of imagery when you put a presentation together, in the product and brand experiences, but also even with internal company documents.
Yes. The important thing is representation matters. At a tech conference someone got up to give a keynote, and every time he referred to an engineer he had a stock photo go up of only women of color — with their laptops, and so forth. That was a great way to disrupt stereotypes of what an engineer looks like. It is great for presentations, but it could also be in other marketing material. Think about the photo you might use for a meetup, a conference event, or even the photos you use on the careers page where you’re talking about employees — and ask if there’s a better alternative. There is, a and we just have to be mindful of thinking about it. I have a previous book I wrote with Poornima Vijayashanker, which is about public speaking, and she and I started giving talks at events based on it. It’s called Present! A Techie’s guide to public speaking. My daughter — I’ll give her a shout out again — was in the audience of one meet up we were at, and afterward, she told me she had realized the stock photography I was using of women was all white women, most of them with blonde ponytails. Of course, I quickly went and looked for alternative photos to make sure that I wasn’t being biased. After that, another resource I put together for betterallies.com is a list of stock photography sites that feature people from underrepresented groups in professional settings. Many of these sites are free of charge; a lot of them are trying to introduce more diverse models in their offerings, but there are others that focus specifically on these groups.
Q. Let’s talk about your book, Better Allies.
The book is for everyone, but as I was writing it I had in mind men who are working in professional settings because in most companies and organizations today it’s men who are getting ahead, men who have more privilege than other people, and specifically white men. That said, they aren’t the only ones with privilege in the workplace. I, for example, am a white, straight woman in a stable relationship, and the list just keeps going — so based on all the privilege I have I certainly can be an ally for other people who don’t have as much. That’s why the book is for anyone who wants to understand how they can leverage the privilege they have to create a more inclusive workplace. Also, even though it was my original lens and it’s my comfort zone, it’s not specific to the tech world — I’m very familiar with the tech industry, but I have broadened it to bring in examples from other areas, other stories, voices and research as well so it’s really free for any industry. It’s broken down by common workplace scenarios. There are chapters on hiring, meetings, on holding and attending events, there’s a chapter on office housework. It provides some summarized research, along with stories and anecdotes to bring it alive, and it ends with a summary of all the everyday actions people can take. And while I wrote it in hopes that people read it cover to cover, it’s also designed as a resource to look up specific ways in which we can be more inclusive, maybe before a conference or during a hiring process.
Q. Let’s touch briefly on the term “office housework”. What does it mean?
Office housework refers to undervalued work. It’s the work that needs to get done in every office, in every company, but it doesn’t really lead to career growth. The most prototypical example is the task of taking the minutes at a meeting, which is no one’s job. Often it goes to the only woman in the room, or the woman will be the only one to volunteer, and many studies show that these office housework tasks do fall more on women — even more on women of color — than white male counterparts. This is a problem, because it puts us in a subservient role in front of our peers, always a step behind what’s happening. If that type of work doesn’t fall on our job description, it will prevent us from concentrating on the tasks on which we’ll be evaluated and that can lead to career growth. Other examples of office housework — beyond getting the birthday cake, taking the minutes, ordering food, scheduling follow up meetings, etc. — are things that come up tech workplaces such as being asked to clean up the comments in the source code before it gets shipped to a partner. That takes technical knowledge, but it’s not valued as much as the new engineering work, so it becomes office housework. This takes us back to your story about the interview in Silicon Valley. People have unconscious expectations about women, but also with office housework, women tend to supplement those tasks, because “somebody has to do it”. So it’s a combination.
Q. Do you see signs that say that things are changing in the workplace? Is it becoming more inclusive, are there positive trends?
The uplifting trend that I see is people are hungry to learn how to be an ally. People understand what it is, and want to do it. When I talk about my book people always want to hear more. There are many of us in the world writing books on allyship now, and we need a whole bookshelf of these, just like we have whole bookshelves of leadership books.
There need to be different voices, so there can be resources available for people who need different things. I don’t know if workplaces are getting more inclusive, but I hear lovely stories. I hear about people taking something they read in my book or in my newsletter to make a difference in their companies, so I remain very hopeful. However, we’ve still got a lot of work to do. There’s a conversation now, it’s out in the open and it’s a matter of moving it forward.