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Becoming a Better Ally

02-17-20 Naomi Leak

Care deeply about inclusion and diversity in the workplace but don’t know how to grow that healthy environment? We’ve learned so much from Karen Catlin, who provides clear advice to help anyone in any position foster a more inclusive culture. Learn along with us.

Sparkbox has been working to be more intentionally inclusive and diverse for years. And it’s been a journey of opening our eyes to our own privilege, how lack of privilege impacts people, and trying to figure out how to encourage and support a company growing in these areas as a whole. We’ve seen amazing highs and other moments where we’ve wondered if we can ever be equipped to take on such a worthy task.

Inclusion and diversity in the workplace are vitally important, but they can also seem like difficult, abstract goals. We’ve experienced firsthand the struggle to find actionable steps that support the Sparkbox team in fostering inclusion no matter where they are on their journey. We’ve sought answers to questions like these:

  • What are we doing that we never realized hurts or excludes underrepresented groups?

  • How can we learn to be practical, everyday allies for those from underrepresented communities?

  • How can we set everyone up for success?

We were so excited to learn about Karen Catlin and read her work because she has developed practical strategies, rooted in connection and empathy, to help anyone become an ally. Karen provides clear advice to help anyone at any position in an organization foster a more inclusive culture.

After a long career in tech, Karen now works as an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. She began as a developer and moved to executive and management positions, finally becoming the Vice President of Engineering at Adobe. During her career, Karen began to notice that the number of women obtaining computer science degrees significantly declined. To combat this downward trend of women in the industry, Karen established a women’s employee resource group at Adobe, where she worked to equip women for success in their careers. After some time, she realized this was her true passion. Resolving to follow this passion, Karen started her own business as a leadership coach for women. But she quickly discovered that her strategies for being a better ally with this one underrepresented group could apply to any underrepresented group. That’s when she started the Better Allies Twitter account to share her learnings and practical applications. Her followers quickly grew, and soon she was asked to speak at events and share her knowledge.

And Sparkbox couldn’t be more thankful to have partnered with the Bureau of Digital to bring Karen to Dayton, OH, for Digital Diversity Days in November 2019. While she was here, Karen shared actionable advice she has identified and ideas for how anyone can be an ally in these situations. Below, you will find some of the ideas she shared.

Karen Catlin speaking at Digital Diversity Days on how companies can search for candidates from diverse backgrounds.

Just-like-me Networking

Professional networking is essential for a successful career. It contributes to professional development. People hire from their networks, and they also build workplace trust through networking. Those in power will usually give stretch assignments or promotions to those from their network who they know and trust. But one significant issue is that we all tend to have “just like me” networks—networks of people who all look like us. This happens naturally as we often build networks through shared interests, and we usually feel comfortable introducing ourselves to people who look like us.

How to Be a Networking Ally

Introduce yourself to people who don’t look like you. Take opportunities to diversify your network.

Attend events for people who are from underrepresented groups. Arrive with an open mind to listen, learn, and network—avoid the impulse to immediately suggest solutions. Be sure to ask the organizers in advance to determine if the event you plan to attend would be appropriate.

Unconsciously Demoting

Often people of color and/or women are unconsciously demoted to a lower-level position than they are. For example, someone assuming that a woman at a tech meeting is there with a partner instead of as an attendee is a clear unconscious demotion.

How to Be an Ally Against Unconscious Demotion

When meeting someone, ask open-ended questions to avoid unconscious demotions. Be careful to avoid assumptions. Consider asking questions like “What role are you in?” or “What made you come to the event today?” rather than “Who are you here with?”


A study on the supreme court justices showed that female justices were three times more likely to be interrupted than the male justices. This can be an issue in many types of meetings. Those who are often interrupted have less of a chance to share their ideas and get visibility for them.

How to Be an Ally Against Interruption

Stop interruptions. Maintain eye contact with the person who was speaking and redirect the conversation back to them. Say something like, “I’d like to hear Emma finish her thought.”

Idea Hijacking

Idea hijacking is when someone hears an idea and later shares it with a group as their own, taking credit for it. Women especially often struggle against idea hijacking in meetings. This issue led women on Obama’s White House staff to consciously watch for the issue and amplify each others’ ideas, maintaining credit to the original speaker. Without this, idea hijacking can make it difficult for those from underrepresented groups to be recognized for their talent and specialties.

How to Be an Attribution Ally

Cultivate a culture of credit. Ensure you give credit to the person who came up with the idea. If someone else picks up the idea, try saying something like “I see you agree with what Willie said earlier” or “What I learned from Ana is…”

Giving Uneven Feedback

Quality constructive feedback is what makes it possible to improve and grow in a career. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the same level of feedback. Women are more likely to get feedback like, “people like working with you,” while men are more likely to get feedback tied to business outcomes that gives them a clear idea of how to get to the next level.

How to Be a Fair Feedback Ally

Focus feedback on impact, what to keep doing, and how to improve. Be specific in what you tell the person. Be sure to give them a clear idea of how their work affects business outcomes.

Suggest new skills to learn to have a bigger impact. Give the person a clear idea of what they can do to grow and level up.

Write reviews of the same length. Give a quick visible check to be sure everyone receives the same amount of helpful, specific feedback.

Withholding Honest Feedback

We sometimes hold back in giving difficult feedback to others for many reasons. We may fear being disliked or being viewed as mean, negative, or biased. Supervisors can hold back important feedback for the same kinds of reasons. But good feedback is necessary and helpful for an employee’s growth, so holding back for these reasons is really more selfish than helpful.

How to Be an Honest Feedback Ally

Give direct feedback. Don’t ease up to avoid hurt feelings. Be kind, but be honest. Giving genuine feedback on how the person can improve is the kindest thing you can do for them.

Unevenly Dividing Office Housework

Office housework includes menial tasks that are not part of a person’s job description—things like washing mugs, taking notes, ordering food, or cleaning the office. This also includes work that can be traditionally undervalued, like training interns or writing unit tests. One study found that women were 29% more likely than men to report doing more office housework than their coworkers. Women of color are tasked with more office housework than their counterparts. If some employees are often tasked (or are volunteering) for office housework, it can have a negative impact on their career growth. Not only does it create subservient roles, but it also takes time away from important work. And if someone is often taking breaks from work to complete these small tasks, it interrupts their “flow”—they cannot maintain the deep focus necessary to be productive. And with tasks such as note taking, it distracts the person from fully participating in meetings.

How to Be an Office Housework Ally

Set up rotations for administrative tasks. Have a system that gives every team member an equal share in office housework.

Share the load. If one employee is often given a certain task because she is good at it, suggest giving it to someone else as a stretch assignment.

Coach frequent volunteers. If one employee is constantly volunteering for office housework, sit down with them to discuss how this could be affecting their career.

Using Insensitive Language

In the tech industry (and beyond), we use quite a few terms that are not inclusive. We use them without thinking of their origin or possible effect on others. Here are some examples: blacklist, master/slave architecture, powwow, lowest person on the totem pole, and spirit animal. These can be insensitive to those around us and make light of concepts that may be either difficult or very important to them. Many job postings also use non-inclusive language in the form of male nouns and pronouns, such as guy, craftsman, he\him\his, or right-hand man. In addition to this, they often use masculine coded words, such as aggressive, assertive, competitive, and rock star. These are words that usually appeal more to men and generally come across as more intimidating to women.

How to Be a Thoughtful Language Ally

Be mindful of your language and evolve it. Pay attention to the things you say and how they may affect others. When you become aware of problematic terms, think of new, more inclusive terms you can use. Each of the examples above could easily be replaced with another term if we consciously considered it: blocklist, parent/child architecture, meeting, newcomer, and patronus.

Use a gender decoder for job listings. These help you flag language that may come across differently to candidates of different genders.

Finding Candidates: How to Be an Ally during Hiring

Folks who are involved in hiring sometimes feel that they have trouble building a diverse workforce because they don’t have qualified applicants from underrepresented groups. But there are qualified applicants out there, so why aren’t some companies hearing from them? Several approaches to recruiting cause this issue. The sections below help you spot those issues and identify how you can become a practical ally in them.

Creating Exclusive Career Pages

Career pages that only show one type of person or only highlight certain types of values can discourage some audiences from applying.

How to Be an Inclusive Career Page Ally

Use inclusive and welcoming language. Make it clear that you welcome candidates from all backgrounds and will work to help them succeed.

Don’t use stock photos or misrepresent your company. Use photos and language that actually show your company and workforce. Don’t use stock photos of a diverse workforce if that is not an accurate representation.

Highlight the social good that your company does. Whether that is volunteering initiatives or how your company’s mission contributes to society, accurately show what your employees are a part of.

Writing Exclusive Job Descriptions

Posting job descriptions with a large number of requirements (that may not actually be essential) can discourage members of underrepresented groups from applying. For example, women generally want to meet every single job requirement before applying. Men generally apply if they meet 60% of the requirements. Requiring a college degree also limits the applicants to those who could afford college when many successful people in the tech industry don’t have a formal education.

How to Be an Inclusive Job Description Ally

Only list actual job requirements. Could a candidate be successful without a college degree or strong written skills? Then leave those out of the requirements section. Only list what is essential to be successful in the job.

Ignoring the Journey

Not all candidates have the same opportunities. Members from underrepresented groups may be strong, capable candidates, but they might not have the same type of experience on their resumes that recruiters generally expect. Perhaps they don’t have the free time to contribute to open source projects, but they still have the skills necessary to do so. Their journey to being a qualified candidate might look different than someone else’s. This may also mean that they are not what the company usually considers a “culture fit,” which can lead companies to pass them over and continue hiring candidates just like those who already work there.

How to Be an Inclusive Hiring Ally

Investigate their qualifications. Don’t automatically disqualify a candidate for having a different-than-normal resume. Dig into why someone may not have a common experience or may have a gap in employment.

Hire people who can be culture adds. Instead of asking if they fit in, ask if they can add something or bring something new to the organization. Seek differences that could be beneficial.

What Do You Do When You’ve Messed Up?

Becoming a better ally takes learning and practice. At Sparkbox, we talk a lot about iteration. If something needs improvement, we make a small change, test it, get feedback, and then continue the process. By doing this many times over, we continuously learn and grow. And we can always be growing. Along the way, we may stumble and make some mistakes. But we are seeking progress over perfection. If you find yourself contributing to one of these problems (or others), take the opportunity to learn more about the issue. Ask questions. Seek to understand others’ perspectives. Always look for new, practical ways you can become a better ally.

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