A 2021 women’s leadership study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that American women held less than 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.
Linda Vahdat, MBA ’14, deputy cancer center director, section chief medical oncology and interim section chief of hematology at Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Norris Cotton Cancer Center
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?
My medical school class was at least 50% women. My residency program was at least 50% women. That’s why I erroneously thought I would probably not encounter discrimination based on gender, but I was wrong. I love what I do so I never focused on salary or negotiation for personal resources. I was very much focused on the resources to execute the job, which were research and teaching resources. In retrospect that was not an ideal strategy, and I would encourage young faculty to look at the entire picture — I believe this represents the level of commitment the institution has to your personal and professional development.
I also learned three lessons:
Lesson #1: Don't assume because you have a female boss that she will be committed to helping you any more than a male boss. The person and their values are more important than the gender. The colleagues who helped mentor me the most in the early part of my career — and today — are men.
Lesson #2: It is important to insist to see the financials but make sure to follow the “chain of command” if you want to change or discuss anything. When I was at my first job, I tracked down the budgets and finances because I had questions no one could answer. When I found the answers and let the bosses know, the people responsible for the errors were not very happy and their mission became to try to discredit me. It is never fun or productive to keep looking over your shoulder.
Lesson #3: Yes, the glass ceiling does exist and is especially strong in academic medicine. I’ve been in academic medicine my entire career and a full professor since 2010, and I’ve found it incredibly difficult to move into more senior administrative positions, even after earning an MBA at MIT. When you look at the ethnic, cultural, and gender compositions of the leadership teams of the major academic institutions in NYC, they do not reflect the diversity of the city, or the diversity of the available talent pool. I never thought that I would encounter a glass ceiling given that the first 75% of my career I felt was balanced and equitable.
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 have had several that I’ve reached out to with specific questions over the years for help with navigation and negotiation. Working at three academic institutions, there was never really a focus on “mentorship” as it was an unspoken part of being in academics. Now everyone is talking about it, measuring it, and it is being incorporated into criteria for promotion. I think these things are all good.
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 applied for the head of hematology and medical oncology at a large NYC teaching hospital where I’d been on faculty for more than a decade, they declined to interview me. I felt it was partly because I dared to be critical of systems that didn’t work that were run by some politically powerful (male) people. But I do think putting a strong woman in a position like that was not something they wanted. The prevalent model of a successful woman leader at that time was to be quiet about things and not rock the boat. I do believe that if I had been male, I would have been elevated as a talented leader. When I saw there was no future for advancement I began looking outside of the institution and found a great opportunity in an organization that realizes it needs to embrace all of its constituents, and it utilized my skills to the fullest.
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?
I think certain organizations will lead the way and others will continue to be dinosaurs. I don’t see them changing unless the boards mandate change (money talks).
How do you support women coming up behind you?
I’ve mentored many women (and men) in my career and continue to be a touchpoint for several of them. I try to advocate balance in their lives: ask/demand certain things with contract negotiations, and use my extensive network of contacts to help them pursue their agendas.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
Most people don’t want to hear what you really think about something even if they say they do. I learned how to be more politically correct, as flying under the radar usually means you can get more done. Which is important if you’re task-oriented.