A 2022 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 Sloan alumna has pushed back on those statistics and used what she’s learned along the way to help those behind her.
Marla Shapiro, MBA ’97, founder and CEO of HERmesa, an angel investment firm for women-founded startups at pre-seed and seed stages. Before launching HERmesa, Shapiro worked as a strategist, business development director, sales lead, and chief operating officer at media and technology companies for nearly 20 years. She spent the early years of her career working on Wall Street in structured finance.
Given what you know now, what would you tell your younger self about being a woman in your industry?
Take up space! Early in my career, I felt like a kid trying to sneak a seat at the adult table. Just because you are young or early in your career doesn’t mean that you can’t add value.
Speak up! Be confident, curious, and persistent. There are many paths to success. Be kind to yourself, and if one path doesn’t work out, try to see that less as a failure and more as an opportunity to get on a better path.
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?
When I first moved to the U.K., I went to a meeting in Germany. I led the U.K. team, but my German counterpart refused to speak directly to me and instead directed all responses at the male colleague to my right. It was so blatant and so ridiculous that I had to laugh — but I wasn’t laughing on the inside.
It is interesting to reflect on this incident with the benefit of many years of hindsight. At the time, the lesson I learned was that I needed to change myself; I must have been “too American” or “too direct” in the negotiations. While there is an element of cultural accommodation when doing business internationally, the lesson I should have learned was that some guys are jerks and I don’t need to change to accommodate that!
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
The “motherhood penalty” is real, and it is brutal. If you step off the career ladder to spend time with your children, it is virtually impossible to return to your prior role and compensation path. This is the same for men who take time off, but gender norms are also pretty brutal for heterosexual couples, and it is overwhelmingly women who are expected to be the primary caregivers.
For me, unexpected growth came from creating a second flexible career as an investor and entrepreneur. I am proud of myself and my friends who have returned with a vengeance to the workforce as child-rearing pressures have eased. We are still as fierce and ambitious as we were before we had children; we just wish we still had the energy of our youth!
What’s one specific way you tend to your well-being, and how do you encourage well-being among your staff?
As an investor in early-stage businesses, a big part of my role is to be a “critical friend” to the founders. But sometimes you have to leave the criticism at the door and just be a friend.
The fundraising markets are really tough these days, and I’ve had a number of discussions lately with our portfolio companies where the founder is “having a wobble.” For me, encouraging well-being among these CEOs is about giving them space to be honest and vulnerable, and to celebrate even the tiniest wins with them.
What’s one skill or behavior women can adopt to make their career path more successful and more manageable?
I asked one of my mentors for productivity tips as I was drowning at work. Instead, she sent me the book “Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less,” by Tiffany Dufu.
Tiffany’s advice is that you need to let go of expectations (e.g., perfect career, perfect body, perfect mom), ask others for help, and reevaluate what should really be on your to-do list.
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?
I would implement the Swedish model of maternity and paternity leave: Couples receive 480 days of leave, and it is generally accepted that this is split nearly equally between both parents. I used to work for a company headquartered in Stockholm and saw firsthand the impact of this policy. It ensures that raising children is not just women’s work and that caregiving is respected in the workplace.