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The Bias Cut

How a Novartis CTO uses engineering skills to help women in STEM

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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.

Dannielle (Sita) Appelhans, MBA ’11, senior vice president of technical operations and chief technical officer, Novartis Gene Therapies

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?

I went to school for mechanical engineering and imagined myself as an engineer in the future, focusing on the physical nature of the work and the challenges that accompanied it. I never pictured my responsibilities would evolve from pure technical topics to developing individuals and leading large teams. Ultimately, I have leveraged the problem-solving capabilities inherent to engineering and applied them in a broader scope.

Over time, my responsibilities have grown into areas like strategy, finance, operations, and management. I am now considered a senior leader within my organization and simultaneously have an impact within and beyond the walls of the company. I feel a large responsibility for advancing the gene therapy field, impacting patients’ lives, and developing my organization.

In the end, it is crucial that you do not limit your own growth and potential. At several points in my career, I chose to take on roles or projects that I was advised not to take. Do not be afraid to take the role no one wants. These opportunities, while difficult, really challenged and developed me.

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?

Very early in my career, I had one female co-worker who guided me through my first really challenging interpersonal work conflict. I had a male co-worker who I was having a difficult time working alongside. I attempted to resolve our issues by experimenting with different solutions, but I kept failing. The female co-worker introduced me to the book, “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High,” and encouraged me to follow the book’s guidance.

Through this approach, I learned in a direct, candid conversation that he felt threatened by me, and in his mind, if I got promoted, he wouldn’t. Having this clarity allowed us to discuss it openly, and for me to stop wasting energy guessing.

More broadly, I learned that having more direct conversations can have positive results, and this lesson really changed how I approach difficult interactions to this day. With honesty and transparency can come solutions.

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 have one experience that still sits with me today. Early on in my career as an engineer, I attended a meeting with a supplier and one of my colleagues, a male engineer. As my colleague and I were walking back to our offices after the meeting concluded, he remarked, “I cannot believe that just happened. That man just acted like you weren’t even in the room.” I was shocked — and sadly not by the interaction with the supplier. The meeting felt normal to me because a lot of my interactions as a female engineer had been similar. It made me sad and angry with myself that I allowed this treatment to be normalized, and I knew I was not alone. This experience sounded an alarm bell for me. I became very active in driving diversity efforts, and I’m very thankful for the passion it ignited in me on the value of inclusion.

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 has been progress in female representation, but we are not where we need to be. Women only represent 28% of the STEM workforce. None of us should be satisfied until we at least reach parity between women and men in these areas.

I believe having visible female role models in the space is key. Women need to see other women in the roles that they aspire to. It helps them realize their dreams are realistic and attainable, or in many cases can create dreams that were never considered. Additionally, it is important that companies and organizations prioritize diversity and inclusion. We need all types of diversity — gender, race, work experience, educational background — in the workplace to see progress. I am a true believer (and research has shown) that diversity of thought and experience truly lead to the best outcomes.

It is also important that we have female leaders in the space who take the time to connect with individuals who are interested in a career in STEM. I feel, and I know many of my friends and colleagues feel, a sense of obligation to give the next generation the support and guidance they need to grow and succeed.

How do you support women coming up behind you?

I have benefited from mentoring throughout my career, and I now spend time acting as a mentor to others. I believe connecting with women early on in their careers is especially crucial. This takes the form of an ongoing mentor/mentee relationship or even just having one phone call from time to time to help someone navigate career milestones. Through these interactions, I hope to help the mentee process what is important to them, give insight from my experience, and help them see even more possible opportunities. Additionally, I strongly believe in the importance of having a balanced, diverse slate of candidates and interviewers for open positions to combat inherent implicit bias.

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

While you should continue to evolve and grow, you should never compromise your values and beliefs.

At times in my career, I have seen individuals trade off their own integrity to “get ahead” professionally. In those moments, I was disappointed and even mad, and eventually accepted that we can only control what we can control. Ultimately, I gained confidence from making the personal choice that I am willing to forsake advancement to be able to look myself in the mirror.

With time I also saw that often there was only short-term benefit to these individuals, and their advantage didn’t last long. This reinforced my belief that you can accomplish great things without forsaking your beliefs and values, and even more importantly, that your legacy is not only defined by the “what” of your achievements, but the “how.”

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

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