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.
Cindy McLaughlin, MBA ’02, head of product at low-carbon technology company CarbonBuilt
Given what you know now, what would you tell your younger self about being a woman in your industry?
Surround yourself with smart, passionate people; take roles that are interesting and meaningful. Don’t take yourself too seriously; be curious, fun, and work hard. Lean in to vulnerability and authenticity. Build relationships. Be yourself. Be a great human and helpful colleague.
Who has been an ally or mentor for you as you’ve navigated your career? How did they specifically help you get to the next level of your professional development?
I have an almost daily call with my sister, weekly with my parents, and frequent check-ins with a small group of longtime, wonderful friends. They have talked me through so many things: salary negotiations, tricky situations, how to handle difficult people, how to find my next fun job, and more. They’ve been my allies when I’m down or in a rough spot. I’m so lucky that they’re each professional superstars in their own right, so we’ve been able to help each other as we’ve navigated our careers. Find those people; they’re worth a fortune.
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?
There may have been little things along the way, but I was lucky enough to be in a position where I was able to ignore them. Instead, I’ve focused my time and relationships on the people who see me for who I am and what I can do. I recommend that approach, since you’re never going to rid every colleague of biases and it’s unhealthy to be bitter all the time.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
Sometimes you do your best and fail hard in ways you never would have expected. It’s embarrassing, confidence-eroding, and lonely. But the thing you start to realize is that everyone fails, even all the wunderkinds coming out of MIT, and the more you can open up and talk about it with your peers, the more they’ll open up and talk about their failures, and you’ve just created new, trust-based relationships with people who can be your champions.
What’s one specific way you tend to your well-being, and how do you encourage well-being among your staff?
On most days, I take long walks through Brooklyn, often in Brooklyn Bridge Park along the waterfront, and I use those walks to call family and friends. Or I’ll bring a bag; stop by my local bakery, coffee-bean guy, and florist; and make my apartment smell good. My staff is all remote, and we have an “anytime vacation” policy. If they want to take an afternoon or a few days off for any reason, at any time, they’re welcome to. If they want to do our meetings as walking meetings, we pop on headphones and do that, too. We often talk about our lives outside work, give each other space where needed, and support each other through challenging times.
What’s one skill or behavior women can adopt to make their career path more successful and more manageable?
Successful workplaces and careers are built on trust. As awkward as it can feel, being transparent with your colleagues whenever you make a mistake at work creates a resilient, constantly learning team. This is a life hack that’s not gender-specific, although it might apply more to women who feel as though they need to be better at their jobs than their male colleagues. Candor and vulnerability show strength and will earn you the respect of your team.
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?
Workplaces: Sustainability and climate need to become the lens through which every single decision in the workplace and in our lives is made. This will be good for women’s professional advancement, as they have more often built their careers on ESG, and it may be even better for families, as decarbonizing and reducing other kinds of air and water pollution will make us all healthier.
Societal norms: Most people should quit their jobs in ad tech or product marketing and join a climate tech or sustainability firm. That’s where you learn how dire things are and wake up to the realities of how unsustainable our lives have become, but also where you can do the most good for future generations. We desperately need to reorganize our towns and cities around the 15-minute city, with walkable, bikeable communities and commutes. This will make our air cleaner, our commutes calmer and safer, our families more proximate (which helps with gender equality), and our climate cooler.
Public policy: Mandatory gender-equal family leave would be an extraordinary equalizer in most companies. Everyone should get the same — ample — time off for having a child or caring for an elder.