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The Bias Cut

How this Toyota VP embraces authentic female leadership

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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 alumna has pushed back on those statistics and used what she’s learned along the way to help those behind her.

Julia Wada, SM ’90, group vice president, corporate strategy and innovation at Toyota Financial Services

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?

When I began my career as a mechanical engineer at Lockheed Martin, I had no idea of the different paths my career could take or what it meant to be a leader. There weren’t many women, but I distinctly remember several who helped me see what I could be. One strong female leader was widely admired, and I was lucky to be able to work directly with her. What stood out for me is that she wasn’t trying to be like the men, or anyone else. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she let me see early on in my career that authentic female leadership was not just normal, but a strength.

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?

I’ve had several mentors and sponsors who helped me navigate my career. My strongest supporters grew out of my manager relationships. They had firsthand knowledge of what I could contribute. They cultivated and grew my interests and talents. They asked me questions that made me think differently. They gave me stretch assignments. They took risks on me. They promoted me. They coached me and helped me to think bigger about what I wanted, what impact I could have, and what the possibilities could be. They stood out as leaders because they believed in people and personally took action to make a difference in the lives of others.

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?

What I witness most often is unconscious bias or microaggressions. For example, female stereotyping, women being talked over or not heard, or applying a single archetype of success. When it would happen to me earlier in my career, I would think to myself, “Is it just me? Should I say something? What is the right thing to say?” I usually would decide it wasn’t worth speaking up. Today, I know better. It’s important to speak up, otherwise things will never change. We’ve learned how to address these kinds of things, either ourselves or as an ally. It’s important to do so in a way that supports the victim and helps the perpetrator understand what they are doing, and what the impact is, so they learn from it too.

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?

Times have changed in the auto industry. At Toyota, three of our 10 North American vehicle plants are run by women, including the largest in Kentucky. I’m part of a 10-person executive committee at Toyota Financial Services, and four of us are women. Our women’s business partnering group has thousands of members focused on the development of women. I’ve seen a real shift from a “you’re on your own” culture to women supporting other women and more recently male allyship as well. This broader recognition of the role we all play to lift up women is the key to scaling.

How do you support women coming up behind you?

I strive to pay it forward by creating an environment where people feel valued and where they can grow and contribute at their highest levels. I mentor and sponsor women as well as champion initiatives and actions that support the continued advancement of women, such as our formal sponsorship program. Sometimes it’s just a simple note, text, or phone call to let someone know that “they got this” or to celebrate a success. These kinds of things made a difference for me, and I hope they can make a difference for other women too.

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

I had been promoted to VP Human Resources, a new area for me. After I got my employee survey feedback, I remember my boss asking me “What happened? People used to love working for you.” Ouch. He helped me see that I had been trying to do certain things that I thought I should do because of my predecessor’s approach. It’s true I had a lot to learn in this new area, but I also had to recognize that I had unique strengths to complement the team’s strengths. I didn’t expect this role to help me find my true self as much as it did.

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