Start a Ripple Effect

Each week, Karen Catlin shares five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

Better Allies®
Jul 31, 2020 · 5 min read

1. Start a ripple effect

In the late 1980s, my manager came back from a visit to Microsoft with a memorable story. During a meeting around a large conference table, he was surprised to see that everyone leaned back in their chairs with their arms behind their heads. Afterward, he asked his host, “What’s up with Microsoft employees? Why do they all sit this way?” His host laughed and replied, “Because that’s the way Bill sits in meetings.”

That story has stuck with me ever since. It’s a simple example of a ripple effect. Of how people mimic behavior (good or bad) that they see in others whom they respect.

In fact, I shared it recently when I was on a video call with someone at Microsoft. We were talking about how acts of allyship can cause a ripple effect, encouraging others to act in similar ways. The Bill Gates story was just too good not to bring up. As I relayed it, I noticed the other person was smiling. She went on to tell me that in her first one-on-one meeting at Microsoft, about seven years ago, her boss also “sat like Bill.” He leaned back in his chair, arms behind his head, and he even put his feet up on his desk.

Now get this…Bill Gates left his day-to-day operations role in 2008. That means his ripple effect was still having an impact five years later when this person joined the company. (I’m sure he’s had a lasting impact on the culture beyond just the way people sit, but that’s beyond the scope of this newsletter.)

Being an ally is a journey, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Start with a single act. (Keep reading for some ideas.) While it may seem small, you’ll make a difference. You may even start a ripple effect.

2. Ask them for their opinion

In a series of tweets last week, grad student Kyle Morgenstein shared a simple yet powerful act of allyship:

“Today during lab meeting one of the grad students (male) was talking about research that he’s working on with an undergrad (female). Whenever the guy made a point, my advisor would stop and ask the undergrad what her opinion was.

He made it clear that despite being an undergrad, her opinion was trusted and valued and he actively wanted her input. Additionally, being one of the only women on the call, the advisor made a point of not letting anyone talk over her or drown her out. He does this regularly.”

This is how you do it, people.

3. Speak up when witnessing violent, offensive remarks

As you probably know, last week, US Rep. Ted Yoho accosted US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, calling her “disgusting” and a “f — ing b–ch” on the steps of the Capitol. A member of the press who witnessed the outburst reported on it. Rep. Yoho went on to deliver a non-apology.

What infuriated me the most about this interaction was the lack of intervention by another elected official, US Rep. Roger Williams. He claims to have not been paying attention, yet Rep. Ocasio-Cortez says he joined in the harassment.

Folks, when witnessing violent or offensive language (or racism or any kind of abuse), we need to pay attention. We need to take action. We need to speak up. Otherwise, we are complicit in the abuse and harassment.

Reflect for a minute what you would have said if you were standing next to Rep. Yoho on the steps of the Capitol. Think about what you will say the next time you witness similar remarks.

One more thing. If you haven’t taken ten minutes to watch Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s response, do so now. It’s an important message for better allies everywhere.

4. Amplify someone’s message

I frequently coach women on how to increase their visibility at work, leveraging research from Catalyst that found making achievements known is critical for women to advance their career. Yet, when women talk about their accomplishments, they can face a likeability penalty. Why? The behavior is deemed as less attractive in women than in men.

To combat this “Damned if you do, doomed if you don’t”* dilemma, I encourage my clients to enlist an ally to brag on their behalf.

Now, let’s turn this advice around for allies. Don’t wait to be asked. Look for opportunities to amplify a coworker who’s a member of an underrepresented group. Here’s what it might look like:

  • “Jen’s presentation lays out the strategic plan. If you missed it, check out the recording.”
  • “I like that idea a lot. In fact, when Ana brought that up last week in our one-on-one, I learned …”
  • “I’m looking forward to Willie’s project update tomorrow. Who else will be there?”
  • “+💯”

*Many thanks to Catalyst for coining such a zinger of a quote.

5. Update “master” to “main” or “template” (or something else)

While I’m seeing many people across the tech industry adopt more inclusive language, we still have work to do. Some terms are deeply embedded in an “it’s how we’ve always done it” mindset. Here’s one example: Using “master pages” in desktop publishing, “master slides” in presentation software, and “master component” in design tools.

Is this use of “master” racist? As my friend and former colleague Sho Kuwamoto tweeted, “It’s close enough.” Close enough to computer science concepts where “master” means the primary thing, and “slave” means the things that copy the master. (Master/slave databases and master/slave clocks.)

Sho is the Director of Product at Figma Design, and they recently worked with Adobe and Sketch to collectively move away from using “master component” terminology in their design tools. Instead, they’re all now using “main component.”

Do you work on a product whose UI uses the term “master”? (I know they exist. I have a few on my laptop.) Please consider switching to another term. One that doesn’t blithely reference (even unwittingly) our terrible history.

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

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies

Being an ally is a journey. Want to join us?

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Better Allies®

Written by

Everyday actions to create inclusive, engaging workplaces. Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies® approach.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +752K people. Follow to join our community.

Better Allies®

Written by

Everyday actions to create inclusive, engaging workplaces. Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies® approach.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +752K people. Follow to join our community.

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