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 Sloan alumna has pushed back on those statistics and used what she’s learned along the way to help those behind her.
Sharon Hopkins, MS ’84, vice president of strategic accounts at Ascend Technologies, formerly co-CEO of Doextra CRM Solutions (acquired by Ascend Technologies).
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 met Jill Leukhardt at Intel, where she was my second-line manager (my boss’s boss). I had the greatest respect for her as a brilliant and ambitious woman who had great judgment and the ability to communicate effectively. Coincidentally, we both left Intel and moved to Baltimore at the same time, me to join the family business, Jill to join an independent high-tech business. I really missed technology, and Jill recruited me. I was offered a director-level role, my first management position.
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?
For the last 20-plus years, my career has been in customer relationship management consulting. Success in this space requires good technical skills, strong business analytical skills, and critically, the ability to influence senior sales leaders. Both sales management and technology are still somewhat male-dominated. The challenge is not that women are rejected when applying for positions in CRM consulting; the challenge is mentoring women so that they feel comfortable in the roles. The good news is that there are increasingly female entrepreneurs running CRM consulting businesses and practices, encouraging other women to confidently engage.
How do you support women coming up behind you?
While sitting on an advisory board for a large software vendor, I started up a group called “Women in CRM” that met during the vendor’s annual conference. This was in response to my having been excluded from or uncomfortably included in informal activities, often late at night, that were macho-oriented — cigar bars, locker room talk, and so on. Business connections were being made during these activities, even if business was not being discussed. One of the most important things women can do for each other is to create comfortable spaces and opportunities to make connections. Over time I have collaborated with and mentored other women — my staff, other business leaders, and entrepreneurs — often informally.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
I wish I had had a better understanding of different styles of communication, competition, and decision-making earlier in my career, particularly as it relates to what are often gender-based traits.
Rather than embracing the fact that there are gender-associated traits, I sought to ignore them. Generationally, I grew up in a time where women were trying to be accepted in a man’s world, and the literature was about how women didn’t perform as well as men — it didn’t go deeper.
I am jealous that I didn’t have access then to more recent studies that address gender dynamics (men to men, men to women, women to women) in a more sophisticated way, and provide insight on how to get more accomplished both personally and in groups.
As an example: Early in my career I wanted a role change and had communicated this during a performance review. I was only offered the position after I resigned and matriculated at MIT Sloan. I suspect I had not sufficiently expressed my determination and timeframe to make the change.
I think I would have been more successful at times by being more aware of style differences, adapting my communication style, and having a better understanding of those different traits in others.