Credit: Laura Wentzel
Ideas Made to Matter
How this former CEO traded anxiety for mindfulness
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.
Amy H. Kimball, EMBA ’19, executive and leadership coach at Amy Kimball Coaching, LLC. Previously, Kimball was chief executive officer at the Boston VA Research Institute and held executive roles for several academic biomedical research organizations.
Given what you know now, what would you tell your younger self about being a woman in your industry?
I was raised by parents who never factored gender into ability or success, so I was surprised at the prevalence of gender bias in my professional career. I now understand many of the behaviors I observed were stereotype-confirming microaggressions, but at the time I felt pressured to “be more like a woman” in the workplace. This included messages from more senior women to “soften my tone” when communicating with senior male colleagues.
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?
When I was CEO, my board chair, Marty Abramson, served as an exemplary boss and human. He had a dry sense of humor and ability to respect the severity of issues while also gently turning down the intensity of a given moment and subtly regrounding my perspective. He offered me space and trust while always making himself available when I needed a sounding board. The term “lonely at the top” couldn’t be more true, and having an ally and supporter to help me through my leadership challenges was key to my resilience and growth as leader.
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 experienced a lot of sexual harassment in my career. The influence of so much internalized misogyny and systemic gender bias had an effect on me over time. I think it unconsciously created some internalized sexism of my own, and because of that, I never formally filed a complaint. When I sought informal input, there was a lot of complacency and talk that supported protecting tenured professionals over taking disciplinary action. I always worried about career consequences, and I think I adopted the belief that this is “just the way it is.”
This is how systemic problems stay in place. When I became CEO, I worked to promote an environment that viewed the issue more seriously and proactively. Sadly, it was probably not enough, and I’ve always regretted not doing more to take on the issue systemically.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
It’s easy to let self-doubt get the better of you. Part of my self-doubt shows up through a lifelong struggle with anxiety. Before I started practicing mindfulness, I used to spend all my time in conversations playing mental chess and thinking about what smart thing I could say next to prove myself.
Once, after a meeting, my female manager called me on my anxiety. She said I was sitting too upright at the conference table and was too eager to share requested edits on a team document. This was a tough pill to swallow, as it was part of my diligence and sense of honoring the job. But I wanted to grow, so I sought treatment.
It ended up being one of the best things I could do for myself. It allowed me to let go of some perfectionism and angst and better understand and trust myself.
What’s one specific way you tend to your well-being, and how do you encourage well-being among your staff?
I maintain an active meditation and mindfulness practice. I meditate, at minimum, every morning, and it helps me reset and gives me perspective on stressful issues.
In my coaching practice, I offer clients mindful perspective-taking exercises when working through challenging situations. We work to develop increased understanding of what’s going on in them and to get some space from being reactive in the moment. The practice helps clients develop ways to better anticipate their emotions and choose reactions that are more aligned with their values.
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?
Even today, I don’t think most systems pay enough attention to internalized oppression, in which historically marginalized populations unconsciously internalize the oppressive viewpoints of individuals in power and, in turn, oppress their own identity group according to these stereotypes. One way to help turn this dynamic around is to practice “calling in” historically marginalized people through small acts like micro-affirmations.
I wish more people would lead with their heart. I’m hopeful that the increased societal norms around things like coaching, therapy, self-care, and calling out racial and other injustices will continue to elevate the upcoming generation by empowering people to feel and act more compassionately. If everyone could start by assessing their experiences using questions like “What’s this bringing up in me?” and “How would ‘the person I want to be’ communicate about it?” we’d be off to a great start.