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 Sloan alumna has pushed back on those statistics and used what she’s learned along the way to help those behind her.
Who was 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?
I’ve had five strong mentors over the course of my career, two women and three men. One of them is Jim Whitehurst. We met in 1996 at Boston Consulting Group right after I graduated from MIT Sloan. We both went to work directly for our client Delta Air Lines shortly after 9/11. When he became CEO of Red Hat, I consulted with him as a strategic advisor, and later he hired me as his executive vice president of strategy and marketing.
Jim is the smartest person I know, without an ounce of ego. He showed me what it was like to lead through empathy and collaboration, not through hierarchy. He fundamentally believes everyone has something important to contribute. He allowed me to grow as a leader and spread my wings by implicitly trusting me and letting me do my job without fear. I knew I could always come to him when I was stuck. He shaped much of my career and remains a strong supporter, friend, and thought-partner today.
Given what you know now, what would you tell your younger self about being a woman in your industry?
Jackie, you think you are on the cusp of a wave of young women entering STEM fields. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t improve nearly as much as you dreamed. Prepare yourself to personally support and help girls and women as you move along in your journey. Don’t just assume that other women in tech will rise on their own. They need to see you. They need to hear you. And as you rise, don’t tell women to “lean in.” Instead, keep one eye and hand turned back, and pull them up along with you. They need your help.
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?
Unfortunately, I have lived this for much of my career, which spans more than 30 years. It was life on a daily basis, so honestly it feels odd to try and name a specific incident.
My husband and I have commented to each other many times that had I been male with the same career aspirations, I certainly would have gone further, faster, and with more money. I’ve gone so far as to apologize to him that it was my career we chased instead of his. I believe I battled bias fairly well moment to moment, but it was so systemic there was simply no way to flatten the overall impact on my career.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
Over time I’ve come to believe that if I’m continually learning and stretching myself, that the fear of “being seen” is a healthy one. If I was comfortable that would mean I had stalled out. I can now be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
What’s one specific way you tend to your wellbeing, and how do you encourage wellbeing among your staff?
I obsess about getting 7 – 8 hours of sleep a night. If I can only pick one, that’s it. I also block my calendar every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 p.m., and 10 a.m. on Saturday for a circuit training class. And my husband and I (empty nesters now) play a board or card game almost every night to wind down.
I no longer have a staff as I recently “retired” from C-level roles because my husband is going blind. But in my last role as chief marketing officer of Tableau I spent quite a bit of time worrying about the wellbeing of my team. Probably what was most important was that we put it front and center on the agenda and tried lots of angles, including things like coordinated days off, flexible work schedules, time off if needed, resilience training, etc.
One concept that worked well for us was working to reinforce our weak ties. Our strong ties remained strong these past few years, but not casually seeing folks in the hallway really caused our weak-tie relationships to fade. We orchestrated lightweight, fun ways for people to connect virtually with others they didn’t see very often.
What’s one skill or behavior women can adopt to make their career path more successful and more manageable?
Set up daily or weekly guideposts that can lower your stress and increase the likelihood of success because you’ve made “decisions before the decision.” If you’ve already made the trade-off you don’t have to torture yourself each and every day. They can be anything but some of my earlier career examples include:
- I will be 100% Mom on the weekend and will not work until 7 p.m. Sunday.
- I will make dinner three times a week.
- I will attend a networking event two times a month.
- I will act as a sounding board, coach, mentor for someone at least once a week.
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?
The abolishment of the notion that 40 hours equals a full-time job. This is an antiquated notion. Technology has made us so much more efficient with our time, yet we still have to fill up 40 hours? We should focus on productivity and outcomes and provide flexibility regarding working hours and locations. We need to make it easier for women to juggle their job, life, and family responsibilities.