Culture

Digital Heroines: Katherine Owen on Working in HR in the Era of #MeToo

11 Jul 2018, Sabina Leybold

Katherine Owen headshot

For the second installment of our Digital Heroines series, we’re interviewing Katherine Owen, Vice President of Employee Experience at Hero Digital. With a long Human Resources career under her belt, she’s implemented initiatives that help women get into digital careers and find their way to the top. While she’s only been at Hero for a year, she’s led the charge on creating a diversity & inclusion task force that has been successful in onboarding, retaining, and promoting women leaders across departments. This dedication to removing the barriers to an equal career path in tech is part of why Katherine is a true Digital Heroine.

How did you end up in digital?

I worked for a global consulting company that provided staffing and HR solutions for large companies like Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Apple…many of my projects were to source staff for graphic design, UI/UX, and big tech and provide the HR teams for those companies. I had an awesome career there for many years, and then the 2008 recession happened and I was laid off. One of my previous clients became CFO at a digital and channel marketing company and she brought me in – that’s how I got into digital. I was there for four years before the consulting company enticed me back, and then Hero came along and wooed me into this role.

What do you wish you’d known starting out?

I think I knew this, but it’s been reiterated over the years: authentic relationships are everything. Not fake ones, not political ones, real relationships!

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Pick your battles. Relationship-wise, I’m a very detailed person and I don’t like to leave anything unsettled, but I’ve had mentors tell me to focus on what will produce the most outcome. Especially in employee experience, I can spend all day on one person’s situation, but I have to keep an eye on the ball for the company as a whole. It’s a continual balancing act.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing women today?

Digital is very male-dominated for sure, but to evolve into an inclusive and diverse workforce we need to watch out for other women. My personal heroine is Melinda Gates, and she spoke at SXSW about how some women are so competitive and willing to throw each other under the bus that it can be a bigger impact than some guy speaking over you in a meeting. Women don’t need to turn into aggressive barracudas to get ahead.

How do you think we can overcome that challenge?

We need to start raising awareness about this struggle just as much as we talk about being marginalized and experiencing mansplaining. We want you to be confident and contribute in meetings – you don’t deserve to be talked over – but at the same time you don’t have to fall into the aggressive trap. Don’t let anybody cause you to compromise yourself.

What’s your latest side hustle or passion project?

I ride horses, I’m an equestrian! I compete riding dressage.

Tell me about a time when you experienced failure and what you learned from that.

Especially for perfectionists, we need to celebrate failure and learn from it. Our diversity & inclusion book group recently discussed The Medici Effect, which is about how we are drawn to people who are like us and the challenge to surround yourself with people who are different from you. I’ve failed in various projects to get proper buy-in, so I’m always looking for ways to get people to agree or disagree. In digital, everyone is billable and busy and nobody has time to meet about office experience initiatives. In the past, when I couldn’t get feedback, I just did projects anyway and they didn’t work out. That’s why I’m passionate about embracing people who disagree and encouraging them to question and poke holes!

The nationwide theme of July’s Women in Digital meetups is sexual harassment, which has been prevalent in the news with Hollywood allegations and #MeToo. How have you seen sexual harassment evolve in the tech industry?

I’ve seen maybe three harassment claims in a thirty year Human Resources career, and of course it still does happen. But the same issues and marginalization that used to manifest as sexual harassment when women were new to the workforce are now appearing in other areas more frequently. Across industries women are more affected by the glass ceiling, being paid less, the pervasive “bro-topia” culture in Silicon Valley…women are hearing less “get me a cup of coffee” and more “you don’t need to come to this meeting.” We need to keep beating the drum on anti-harassment, but that drum should be equally as loud for these other issues too.

Why do you love digital?

I’ve worked in big tech, I’ve worked in digital, and what I love about digital marketing is this combination of the creatives and the nerds. It’s a great challenge for human resources! You can’t just appeal to the fun, cool people, you have to appeal to the technical side and the introverts as well. Plus the agility and movement of digital is tremendously energizing.

Interview edited for clarity and length.

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One of Hero’s values is diversity & inclusion, especially for women in tech. We’re proud to be a partner of Women in Digital, an organization focused on the advancement and growth of women in digital creative fields by uniting them together.

Want more advice from women in digital fields? Read Digital Heroine Yasmine Robles discuss self-doubt and sticking to your why.