A 2020 women’s leadership study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that American women held less than 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.
Andrea Friedenson, MBA ’09, founder and CEO of Project Armor, a behavioral and physiological analytics company
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?
My manager at Disney, Rick Sanchez, was a true ally and mentor. He gave me a lot of responsibility and made sure I got all the credit when my projects succeeded. He advised me to jump on an opportunity to become an executive at a fast-moving startup, where I accumulated a lot of experience very quickly. He’s still an amazing mentor. We check in from time to time, and his advice is always rock solid.
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 have been many, many examples, but one of the most egregious was a few years ago, when someone accidentally sent me the employee compensation spreadsheet for the company where I worked. I thought I had negotiated well coming into the role, but I saw that at every level, the women in the company — including myself — were given equity packages that were orders of magnitude lower than our male peers.
I thought that there must be some mistake, so I asked the chief marketing officer, to whom I reported, about it. He cursed at me, told me the pay disparity was due to most of the female employees being “moms with no better options,” and told me I wasn’t a culture fit. Prior to that conversation, I had received only positive feedback, so his reaction came as a shock.
I ended up leaving the company shortly afterward for a better opportunity. Other than being disappointed in my manager, I experienced no negative professional repercussions, and I learned an important lesson about trying to work at companies with transparent compensation strategies and a commitment to high professional standards.
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?
I have seen the tech industry take huge strides over the past five years. Large companies in particular seem very committed to hiring and promoting based on aptitude and track record, regardless of demographics. I think the wheels are already in motion, but in business, you can’t have control if you don’t have capital. Having more women in positions closer to capital — as investors, founders, and executives — will do the most in accelerating the tech industry’s evolution.
How do you support women coming up behind you?
I’ve tried to promote and encourage talented women wherever I’ve found them. As an example, two of my direct reports from Vungle have gone on to roles closer to capital – Kira Sparks and Lauren Venell. Kira has become a marketing executive and Lauren a serial entrepreneur and founder. We’ve stayed in touch over the years and I’m not at all surprised by their growth and success. They were both already impressive when I first met them. If they needed anything from me, it was just encouragement, support, and the opportunity to show off their skill. I’ve always thought that service was a huge component of leadership. If I could offer advice to other managers, it would be to set an intention to look for those opportunities to give someone else a leg up.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
The most difficult lesson I’ve learned is that you have control over much less than you think you do. I learned that doing public relations for startups. Even if you do everything right, there’s no guarantee you get coverage — some exogenous event could suddenly and completely overshadow your message. As someone with a strong sense of agency, that was a tough one for me to accept. But I learned that it’s important to focus on optimizing the process, not the outcome. That way, when the odds do break in your favor, you’re ready for them to massively accelerate your efforts.