A 2021 women’s leadership study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that American women held 41% 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.
Sangeeta Lala, MBA ’15, vice president of global account management at global electronics contract manufacturer Flex
In what ways is your professional life as a woman in the workplace different from how you imagined it would be when you started your career?
Having grown up in a women-dominated household and attending all-girls schools and colleges, I was pretty naïve in my early days believing that there were no differences between how women and men were viewed in the workplace. I was confident, and still am, that there are no hurdles that cannot be overcome. Gender bias is common across countries and situations, no matter if it’s in a classroom or a job, so I would always march forward or strongly push back when faced with these biases. However, my approach — along with more gray hair — has changed over the years, to be more thoughtful and strategic.
Who was an ally or mentor for you as you’ve navigated your career? What made that person stand out, and how specifically did they help you get to the next level of your professional development?
Two of my past mentors (Ashok Reddy and Manish Sabharwal of TeamLease Services) helped me grow tremendously in the early years of my career by trusting me with new roles and responsibilities that stretched beyond what I believed I was capable of. When others would be critical of my failures, they would show support by rallying behind me with additional hands to help in the solution. They also were my best critics and pushed me hard to think strategically beyond day-to-day tactical events, which has laid the foundation to how I approach life and situations today.
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?
A time when I was at a loss for words was during a public round table, when a manager mentioned hiring me since I was a woman without kids or any plans for kids (I was in my first trimester at the time, and he didn’t know it yet). While I did not address it then, I knew going back to the same team/manager was not an option post-maternity leave.
Certain industries are as male-dominated as ever. Where do you see progress in your own professional experience and how can we scale that throughout your industry?
There was a time when I was possibly the only female in a global meeting of a dozen or more participants; I see the female voices multiply with passing years. Much of this progress has happened methodically due to structured initiatives like hiring practices, pay and benefits structuring, retention and rehiring programs, and customized development and training.
An early initiative (one of many) in my organization was SheLeads, an accelerated global development program for diverse women leaders to create a talent pipeline to increase female representation in Flex leadership. I was nominated to be in the very first cohort of SheLeads, which gave me access to leadership forums, trainings, and executive perspectives.
Since then, I have paid it forward by supporting subsequent cohorts as an alumni project counselor. However, while initiatives have helped grow gender diversity in senior positions and hiring at the entry levels, it’s still imperative to have programs that influence mid-level talent development in women.
How do you support women coming up behind you?
I have consistently mentored women in my career and academics, as well as offered to be the voice in initiatives focused on diversity, particularly regarding women. This included being a designated mentor in the Flex mentoring program for women, and informally as a coach and mentor to female hires across regions and levels in the organization.
It can be quite overwhelming to join a large global organization that is male-dominated and where much of the team has spent decades in the system. My focus in mentoring has been to accelerate my mentees’ abilities to maneuver through complex matrices, as well as hone their voices so they don’t need permission to voice an opinion and stand by decisions just because they are new and female. Through these experiences, I’ve noticed that one-on-one conversations flush out real issues and provide so much food for thought and subsequent action.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
As a mentor always said: “The smartest person in the room is the room.” It took me a few experiences early in my career to learn that working with people is the most successful way to move ahead. It is almost impossible to single-handedly be successful, let alone do anything great!