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The Bias Cut

This KPMG principal leads a team to accelerate women’s careers

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

Julia Abramovich, MBA ’02, principal, KPMG

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?

To be honest, I probably did not have a clear vision for where my career would take me. My parents were both professors. Growing up in our house, discussions about academia were far more common than business ones. Yet I always wanted to be in business where “things happen for real” and not just in theory or in a textbook. I never expected any breaks so everything had to be earned. My parents also taught us that you can be anything you want to be if you work hard, regardless of who you are.

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?

Today, knowing how important mentors are, I wish I had known to seek out and build more formal mentor relationships earlier in my career. There were many informal professional relationships that were mentor-like. Prior bosses, leaders I admired for one reason or another, managers that gave me stretch opportunities to learn and grow. I loved watching different leadership styles and took notice of behaviors I wanted to emulate, and those I didn’t. I tried to intentionally absorb things that would match my personal brand and to steer clear of those I didn’t want to be known for. Mentors are great in helping you answer the ever-elusive question of “Who do I want to be when I grow up?”  

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?

Many years ago, I had a well-intentioned boss tell me: “I didn’t put your name in for XYZ opportunity because you’d be just coming back from maternity leave and I figured you wouldn’t want to travel.” I knew he meant well, so I explained that it should be my choice and that in fact I did want the opportunity and was willing to travel. He said “OK” and I got the gig. Had I not spoken up, I’d probably still be steaming about that lost opportunity.

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?

Tech and consulting are both pretty male-dominated. But I found ways to make it work to my advantage. I thought that if I am as good or better and work extra hard, then I’ll rise for the top because everyone benefits from diversity. I never accepted that the gender gap would hinder my professional growth. I was pretty comfortable advocating for myself, and even more so as I progressed past entry-level roles. I know many people don’t feel as confident speaking up, and it’s something we need to focus on when helping mentor and develop young women in the workforce. 

How do you support women coming up behind you?

Women’s advancement has always been a passion. I mentor a lot of young women, and it is so rewarding to see them succeed and get promoted. I love hearing from them when they hit a big milestone and share their successes. Often you get a note or a text years later from them and it always the best part of my day.

In the MIT Sloan Boston Alumni Association, we have a women’s advancement initiative that I co-lead. At KPMG, my team just launched a new women’s development program designed to help high-potential women accelerate their careers in business development. We’ve also doubled down on inclusion and diversity efforts because despite all the great work so far, there is still so much left to do.  

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

There have been many setbacks and hard lessons. You learn and grow the most from those toughest lessons. It is hard to see the silver lining in the moment of failure or challenge. Not taking things personally and reminding myself that “this too shall pass” has helped me get through difficult times at work.