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Creating inclusive workplaces is crucial for any organization that wants to get the most out of its talent. This means creating an environment where everyone feels like they belong, has equal opportunities, is empowered to do their best work, and feels comfortable making requests and contributing ideas. 

Karen Catlin

About the interviewee: After spending 25 years building software products and serving as a 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 highly acclaimed author and speaker on inclusive workplaces. She has published four books, including “Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces,” and “Belonging in Healthcare.”

Welcome to the series, Karen. Before diving in, we’d love to get to know you a bit better. How did you get to where you are today?

Sure! As a vice president at Adobe, I felt a call to action to mentor, support, and sponsor women across the company. I loved doing that work so much that I decided to do it full-time. So, I launched a leadership coaching practice focused on women working in the tech industry.

However, soon after starting my business, I realized I had a big problem. My clients were facing an issue I couldn’t address through coaching: All were working in companies where the closer you got to the C-suite, the maler and paler it got. 

Clearly, these organizations were not true meritocracies where people get ahead based on their work and contributions to the business. That’s when I decided to focus on making workplaces more inclusive, not just for women like my clients but for employees of any underrepresented group.

My first step was to create a Twitter handle, @betterallies, to share simple, everyday actions people could take. Through tweeting, coupled with responses to my posts and interactions with others working in tech, I amassed many great examples of how allies act, or should act, in real workplace scenarios. 

They were far too good to let them fade into the Twitter twilight, so I compiled them into my book, Better Allies. More recently, I researched allyship in healthcare workplaces and wrote Belonging in Healthcare. 

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a funny mistake you made when you were first starting out and what lesson you learned from it?

When I was in high school, I worked at a convenience store. One day, the manager asked me to get a large, heavy watermelon off a high shelf in the walk-in cooler. Let’s just say I spent the rest of my shift cleaning up smashed bits of watermelon and washing down that cooler. Lesson learned? Ask for help when the weight is too much for one person to bear.

Fast forward to today, and I’m still making mistakes and learning from them. Being an ally is unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory for many of us. Yet the ally mindset means taking responsibility for learning to do what’s right instead of falling back on what’s easy or safe. 

Sparking meaningful change requires pushing past our own fears and being willing to get vulnerable. And possibly make a few mistakes along the way.

Each time I make a mistake on my journey to be a better ally, I write about it in my weekly “5 Ally Actions” newsletter so that my subscribers can learn with me.

None of us are able to succeed without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

I could fill pages with gratitude for those who’ve helped and inspired me. Instead, I’ll mention just one person who deserves a shout-out: my husband, Tim. He believes in me more than I do in myself and consistently supports and encourages me in all of my endeavors. I think everyone should have a partner or friend like Tim in their lives.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and how it’s relevant to you in your life? 

I’m inspired by Maya Angelou, who wisely said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

I think of those words every time I realize there’s more I should have (and could have) been doing to be more inclusive over my career and life.

Thinking back on your own career, what would you tell your younger self?

Take more writing classes. While I’m a professional writer now, it hasn’t always come easily to me. And I’ve needed to write in every job I ever held.

Each person has the opportunity to be more inclusive every day with simple actions in the meetings they attend, messages they send, and other interactions they have with coworkers. This is why I focus on helping people learn to be better allies with everyday actions.

What systems do you have to ensure your workplace is as inclusive as possible?

While I firmly believe that top-down diversity and inclusion initiatives are important, I view individuals as ambassadors of an organization’s culture.

Each person has the opportunity to be more inclusive every day with simple actions in the meetings they attend, messages they send, and other interactions they have with coworkers. This is why I focus on helping people learn to be better allies with everyday actions.

Based on your experience and success, what are your top 5 tips for creating more inclusive workplaces?

1 . Diversify your professional network. Most of us have “just like me networks,” which results in us hiring, promoting, and offering other career-growing opportunities to people “just like us.” 

To diversify your network, spend time with colleagues who are members of underrepresented groups. If you’re working in a male-dominated field, this means getting to know women and non-binary individuals across your organization or industry.

If you’re white and straight, spend more time with people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

You can do this by through virtual coffees, joining employee resource groups (asking first if you’d be welcome), attending conferences for people from underrepresented demographics, and following a diversity of voices on social media. 

In all of these settings, you can get to know individuals from diverse backgrounds, hear about their experiences, and learn from them.

2 . Create more inclusive meetings. Meetings are often filled with non-inclusive behavior, such as interruptions, idea hijacking, misdirected questions, and housework tasks.

I want more allies to pay attention to what’s happening in their meetings and take action. Notice someone being interrupted? Interject, and say, “I’d like to hear Emma finish her thought.” Hear someone repeating another person’s great idea and getting all the credit? Remind everyone who originated it, saying something like, “Great idea. Thanks to Willie for surfacing it earlier.” 

If a client asks you questions instead of the most qualified woman in the room, redirect the conversation with a simple, “Deepa is the expert on that topic. Let’s hear from her.” If someone asks the only woman of color to take notes or schedule a follow-up meeting, offer to do it yourself.

By amplifying and advocating for underrepresented colleagues in meetings, you’ll help ensure all voices are heard, with the added bonus of helping everyone know that they’re valued members of the team.

3 . Endorse coworkers publicly. When I first joined Adobe, I noticed something interesting. My new manager said things in meetings along the lines of: “What I learned from Karen Catlin is the following …”. 

By doing this, he helped me build credibility with my new colleagues, most of whom were men. His shout-outs made a difference and made me feel great. He took action as an ally, using his position of privilege to endorse me publicly.

Sharing what you learned from someone is just one approach to support coworkers to boost their standing and reputation. Take a minute to reflect on how you shine a light on others and how you might do even more of it.

4 . See something, say something. Non-inclusive behavior takes many forms. It might be an inappropriate joke or someone using demeaning language. It might be biased decision-making when discussing talent. It might be harassment. Each time we witness something, we have a choice to make: say something or not.

Does coming forward and objecting feel uncomfortable? 

For many of us, the answer is a resounding “Heck yes.” But this discomfort is nothing compared to how it feels for the person whose racial group is being joked about, the colleague who is forced to endure constant commentary about her appearance, or the coworker who is being excluded due to a disability. 

The discomfort of allies pales in comparison to what people from marginalized groups are forced to live through on a daily basis for the entire duration of their lives.

To equip yourself to confront discrimination and inappropriate behavior when you see it, consider queuing up some open-ended responses like “What makes you feel that way?” or “What makes you say that?”

5 . Be curious, not furious. In 2021, I attended a conference where Dr. Bernice King, CEO of the King Center and daughter of civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, was interviewed. One of the topics she addressed was how people could take action to address bias in the workplace. As you might imagine, I was paying close attention.

Dr. King emphasized the importance of getting out of our silos and connecting with coworkers in a real way. She encouraged us to be curious and understand their world, learn where they are, and give them space and place to have genuine and honest conversations. 

As an example, she told us about a woman who wanted to remove the Confederate flag from a government building. Instead of getting angry and defensive when a man pushed back, she asked why the flag was important to him. Not to trick him, but to understand him. In turn, he then asked her why it was important to her to remove the flag. They were able to have a genuine, honest, and productive conversation.

While listening to Dr. King, I remembered a zinger of a phrase: Be curious, not furious. It’s a perfect mindset for those times when someone disagrees with us or points out when we’ve made a mistake on the journey to be a better ally. Give it a try.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with and why?

I’d be beyond honored to spend time with Michelle Obama. I’d love to talk with her about how we can be better allies for young people of color and others who are marginalized across our country.

Thank you so much for your insights, Karen. How can our readers further follow your work?

Please consider signing up for my free “5 Ally Actions” newsletter or following @BetterAllies on social media. More information is on my website,

By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.