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The Bias Cut

Women’s career advice: Remember that exhaustion is not a yardstick for productivity

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A 2023 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 alumna has pushed back on those statistics and used what she’s learned along the way to help those behind her.

Stefania Mallett, SM ’77, co-founder of corporate catering marketplace ezCater.

Given what you know now, what would you tell your younger self about being a woman in your industry?

Stop being so cautious, stop being afraid; get in there and figure it out as you go. Bring all your knowledge, wits, and courage, but don’t only tackle things that you already know how to do. Remember: It’s OK to be wrong. How many people have you seen learning as they go, making mistakes, and you think nothing of them doing that? Give yourself permission to not be perfect.

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?

How about I give a time when I exhibited gender bias? I asked a recruiter for female candidates for my company’s board. When I received resumes of women with skyscraping titles at top-shelf companies, my startled reaction was, “Women hold positions like that?” It was an eye-opening realization of how much I had internalized assumptions that women “should” be in support roles and can’t or shouldn’t hold big and powerful positions. I’ve learned to excise such thoughts, and I’m now much less surprised by women in power positions. That of course also frees me from the unconscious self-limiting that I surely was doing.

What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?

Some people are just bad people. They lie, steal, ask (or order) you to do unethical or illegal things, are abusive, etc. I used to try to “fix” such people; my coaching skills grew extensively as a result. But at some point, rather to my surprise, I simply stopped trying to fix these folks. I finally understood it’s not my responsibility. Now I just part ways with them ASAP. If it’s possible and appropriate, out of respect, I’m explicit with them about why we’re separating. But then that’s the end of my involvement with them.

What’s one specific way you tend to your well-being, and how do you encourage well-being among your staff?

Americans often use exhaustion as a yardstick for productivity, but the pile of work doesn’t materially diminish whether you work until 5 p.m., 9 p.m., or midnight. I recommend a better yardstick. Make your mile-long to-do list, sort it so the most strategic and highest-impact items are at the top, and then ruthlessly cut off everything below the fourth or fifth item. Go to all the involved parties and explain what you will and will not do. From then on, work only on your short list, and finish work each day at a reasonable hour with a clear conscience.

What’s one skill or behavior women can adopt to make their career path more successful and more manageable?

Stop slapping your forehead in dismay when you see people — often men — do things like grab projects they’re only half-qualified for, ask for more money, and push to be on teams they’re interested in. Start doing those things yourself! You can’t change other people, but you can change yourself. Why not pick up techniques that work for others?

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216