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The Bias Cut

Why this R&D officer supports alternative career paths

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A 2019 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.

Angelique Adams, Executive MBA ’18, chief innovation and R&D officer at steel producer Aperam

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?

I never imagined that I would be leading over 100 scientists and engineers around the world. When I started as an intern for an oil and gas company, the work was very local and very male. Everyone worked in the same office, and travel was only a couple of times a year. There were women leaders in the organization, but they were not in the technical ranks like me.

Over the past 10 years, the way of working has really changed to a global virtual team model with a lot of travel to visit team members and customers. I still don’t see many women leading technical organizations like me, but I do see a robust pipeline of candidates.

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?

 Years ago, during a performance review, my boss agreed that I exceeded all of my objectives. He chose his closing comments to tell me: “I have decided that it is better if I give presentations to the leadership team instead of you because I am more attractive.” There were a lot of ways to interpret what he said. The message I received was: You will never be good enough. I was so humiliated that I didn’t tell anyone. I held on to that message for a long time, and it took me a long time to regain my confidence.

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 have been in metals and mining, a very male-dominated industry, for over 20 years. The industry has evolved from doubting women can do the job, to saying, “Yes they can do it, but we can’t find any” (the classic pipeline defense), to where we are now, which is “Women are doing a great job for us, how can we continue to attract, retain, and develop them?”

I think the key to achieving the retention we want is to normalize alternative career progression. Whether it be the path or the pace, the model of the traditional career progression doesn’t work for most women or men [for two reasons].

First, many scientists and engineers aspire to be world-renowned technical experts. Can they have a long and progressive career never managing anyone? Second, in the first 10 years of a career many people choose to start a family. It is widely known that women take on more of the childcare duties. If she chooses to press pause for a few years, will she be penalized when she comes back?

How do you support women coming up behind you?

Earlier this year I started an exclusive LinkedIn community called The Lady Visitor Project, for women who are excelling in male-dominated workplaces.

For the past two years, I interviewed successful women from around the world for a book I am writing. As I listened to their incredible stories of overcoming adversity and achieving success, it became clear to me that we need a community.

We have so much in common yet we feel alone. We need a place to talk openly and honestly about what it really takes to excel in our jobs. We need a place to celebrate our wins and a place to lift us up when we stumble. Unfortunately, we can’t get that at work. So I created the community myself.

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

The most difficult lesson I have learned is that it is OK to ask your boss for help on non-work-related things, because there is not a clear separation between work and home life.

In my first year as a leader, one of my direct reports lost his home in a fire and another of my direct reports needed to take a leave of absence in order to care for a family member. While I was not exactly sure how best to handle each situation, I was certain that as their boss it was my role to do my best to utilize the resources I had to help them. I didn't question it.

Yet I have been reluctant to see that I can be afforded the same benefits. It hasn’t been until just recently that I felt like I could sit down with my boss and discuss a scheduling issue that was a challenge for me. Of course he was eager to help me find a solution; good bosses want to work with their employees!