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5 Ally Actions - Jun 17, 2022

Better allyship starts here. Each week, Karen Catlin shares 5 simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace.

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Mitigate proximity bias

In Think Working From Home Won’t Hurt Your Career? Don’t Be So Sure, Wall Street Journal columnist Callum Borchers wrote about proximity bias, defining it as:

1. A tendency to favor people in close proximity to you
2. Human nature and the way things have worked in business since forever

(I chuckled when I read that second definition.)

How does proximity bias show up? Borchers provided this insight: “Sure, you can hit your performance targets from the kitchen table and wear out the ‘raise hand‘ button on Zoom. But a colleague who chats up the boss when the meeting is over and goes for a drink after hours may get ahead.”

To overcome this bias, here are two ideas:

  • As I shared in a previous newsletter, measure where people work and examine how this data relates to promotions.
  • During interviews for management roles, ask candidates what steps they’ve taken to mitigate proximity bias.

If you have additional ideas for overcoming this bias, I’d love to hear about them. Reply to this email to share your thoughts. Thank you.


Avoid using “identify as”

A quick Google search for “women and those who identify as women” yields over 100,000 results. It’s a popular phrase to describe employee resource groups and professional events for women and transgender women. I’m sure I’ve used it myself more than once.

Yet, as I recently learned from a post on Twitter and a subsequent discussion in a Slack group I belong to, this phrase is not as inclusive as we might think it is.

A transgender woman does not identify as a woman. By contrast, a transgender woman is a woman. By using “identify as,” we’re making a distinction between that person and the people we believe are women, which could be code for transphobia.

Instead of saying “women and those who identify as women,” consider using “all women.” For example, “This event is open to all women.” To be extra clear, you can add, “Yes, this includes transgender women because transgender women are women.”

Interested in learning more about how to be an ally to transgender people? Check out GLAAD’s Tips for Allies of Transgender People.


Replace gender-binary language

Last week, I spoke to a group of entrepreneurs about allyship. Ahead of time, my host mentioned they would have many questions, which was definitely the case. I deeply appreciate how engaged they were with the topic.

One of our many lively discussions was about the phrase “ladies and gentlemen.” It first came up because one person referred to the ladies he worked with, and another mentioned the ladies in the room. I took the opportunity to explain that “ladies” is a patronizing word that hearkens back to nobility and less equitable times when women behaved in a certain demure way, suggesting they use “women” instead. At this point, someone asked, “Is it okay to say ‘ladies and gentlemen?’”

I shook my head, explaining that in addition to using the problematic word “ladies,” the phrase reinforces the notion that gender is binary, which it’s not. I recommended using “welcome distinguished guests” or a simple “good morning everyone,” like London Tube announcers started doing years ago.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “But, how many people will feel offended or excluded if I say ‘ladies and gentlemen?’”, I’ve got some data to share with you.

According to a new Pew Research Center report, that while only 1% of the U.S. adults surveyed said they were non-binary, 20% said they personally know someone who is non-binary.

Allies, let’s replace gender-binary terms with more inclusive alternatives. For the 20% of our audience who may know someone who is non-binary and because it’s the right thing to do.


Pay interns

Earlier this month, the US White House announced they would pay interns for the first time in recent history. As Axios reporter Ivana Saric pointed out,

“Unpaid internships are only practical for a privileged few and are often early exacerbators of inequality. Often, students who can afford to take an unpaid internship either have family money to pay rent and living expenses or come from wealthy universities that can provide hefty stipends.”

Because internships can launch a career, we should make them within reach for people from lower economic backgrounds. Let’s pay our interns.


Listen and take action (and don’t say “spaz”)

Last Friday, American musician Lizzo released her new song, “GRRRLS.” Almost immediately, disability advocates let her know she was using an ableist slur: Spaz. It’s short for spastic and is an offensive way of referring to someone who has cerebral palsy. It’s also used to describe inept or clumsy behavior.

Within days, Lizzo responded with an updated version of the song and an apology

“It’s been brought to my attention that there is a harmful word in my new song ‘GRRRLS’. Let me make one thing clear: I never want to promote derogatory language. As a fat Black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me so I overstand the power words can have (whether intentionally or in my case, unintentionally). I’m proud to say there’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyric change. This is the result of me listening and taking action. As an influential artist I’m dedicated to being part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world.”

Let’s all listen to feedback and take action. Let’s be part of the change we want to see in the world.

That’s all for this week. I wish you strength and safety as we all move forward.

— Karen Catlin (she/her), Author of Better Allies®

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Mark Your Calendar

I’m excited about my upcoming talks for ACE Women’s Network, Cal State Tech Connect Conference, Deloitte, EDUCAUSE, and Yale University.

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Haven’t heard me speak yet? Listen to this episode of the Women in Product podcast, where Elizabeth Ames and I discussed steps we can take in our lives to be better allies, including my favorite approach of seeking common ground and then educating.

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