A 2022 women’s leadership study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that American women held 40% of corporate management positions, and women continue to fight underrepresentation when it comes to board positions and CEO roles. They also face gender bias, harassment, and opposition to their management styles.
Here’s how one MIT Sloan alumna has pushed back on those statistics and used what she’s learned along the way to help those behind her.
Theodora Lai, Global MBA ’16, director of business development for private equity firm Tembusu Partners, which specializes in venture and growth-stage investments in Southeast Asia and China.
Given what you know now, what would you tell your younger self about being a woman in your industry?
If you’re pursuing a professional career, pursue a field you find meaning in and have the motivation to become better at. It’s also important to find a sponsor at your workplace — someone who has your back and who helps you find opportunities to progress and succeed.
If you’re taking the entrepreneurial path, seek out advisers and strategic investors who can be your role models. And for everything life brings to you, find a mentor. He or she should be someone who can guide you through different career and life stages.
Can you give an example of a time you’ve experienced or witnessed gender bias? How did it affect you professionally? What impact did it have on your job?
I’ve witnessed gender bias in performance support, where one male manager was more comfortable speaking with other men and overlooked experienced female colleagues by not including them in discussions or by giving them little opportunity to participate and give valuable input.
I thought to myself, “When I am in a position to lead and change a team, I will commit to being fair in giving opportunities and providing training to develop people to grow in their roles.” It was a reminder that we should also be open to engaging with people who might hold views different from our own.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
Don’t let what others do determine your level of commitment or distract you from the role you were tasked to do.
A colleague or a business partner you’re working with on a project might suggest something to you that you disagree with, or you may feel you can offer a better solution to a problem. Take a constructive approach: Don’t express displeasure or opposition or turn it into a yes/no dichotomy. Do take time to understand and persuade and bring others along with you. Great leaders are people who don’t seek power but take responsibility because they have the capability and empathy to help others.
What’s one specific way you tend to your well-being, and how do you encourage well-being among your staff?
I have started to key into my calendar the time I would like to set aside for family, professional, and community commitments, as well as for “me time.” This includes time with my parents and friends I want to catch up with. Me time also means self-care and alone time, which could be enjoying a book over a coffee or searching for a nice present for a family member’s birthday or special occasion.
If planning a year in your life is like filling an empty jar, put in the big rocks first. These are your three to four goals for the year. Then the spaces in between get filled with the little rocks, which are the little things on the to-do list that come your way. Avoid letting the jar fill up with little rocks first, as you may find that you don’t have enough time or energy to embark on what you truly want to achieve.
What’s one skill or behavior women can adopt to make their career path more successful and more manageable?
Women are strong and adaptable. Do not let your gender or being in the minority hold you back from communicating your views. Be self-aware and confident in your skills and experience. As the future of work evolves, be willing to take on new challenges and learn new skills.
In my experience in private equity, there are opportunities to work directly with portfolio companies to help optimize or bridge transitional roles. I took on a chief marketing officer role for [Singaporean dining app] Burpple, where I learned about digital marketing, data analytics, and the identification of unique selling points for new products and services. This gave me deeper insights when I returned to an advisory seat.
If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about workplaces, societal norms, or public policies that would most benefit women in the workforce, what would it be?
In our society today, it’s common to see both parents working. I hope we can build trust between employers and employees to give working mothers and fathers flexibility and understanding for their family and caregiving responsibilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the possibilities — and even practicalities — of remote and flexible work.