A 2021 women’s leadership study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that American women held 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.
Perihan Abouzeid, MBA ’15, serial entrepreneur, founder of nursing pod startup PeriCare
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 first started, I didn’t think much about what it’s like being a woman in the workplace. Today, I know better. Throughout my career, especially in the corporate world, I’ve been put in good and bad contexts that singled me out as a woman. I won awards and spoke at major events for being a woman entrepreneur, but I was also often asked the wrong questions by investors or employers — Are you married? Are you OK with working long hours? — and even told that I’d quit my job as soon as I become a mother.
As I progressed in my career, I realized that my responsibilities extend beyond my functional role. As a professional woman, I’m responsible for change by showing a positive example of leadership and changing the narrative about values like work-life balance and assertiveness (often described as aggressiveness if coming from a woman). As a mother, I also realized that I have a responsibility to educate my colleagues and leaders about having a mother-friendly work environment — for example, taking breaks for pumping.
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?
My father was orphaned at the age of 4 and had to support himself. Growing up, I never heard my dad say something is impossible. In fact, sometimes his vision for our future almost seemed unrealistic — until it happened.
My twin brother, Seif, has always been my biggest ally and source of motivation. As a twin, I was always subjected to people’s comparisons (who’s smarter, who’s better at school, who’s better at sports, etc.). Luckily, we had different dreams and parents who highlighted how each of us stood out on our own. Growing up we became each other’s companions. We would share dreams, challenges, and advice, and lift one another up when we were down. There’s not a single professional decision either of us made without consulting the other.
My beloved husband, Khaled, has become my backbone. If not for his active participation in our household responsibilities and parenting our daughter, as well as constant advice on how to navigate through corporate politics (he’s much better at that than me), my professional career would have taken a different turn. I honestly believe I wouldn’t be where I am today without all three of these men.
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?
I can think of plenty. When I was the only female director out of a senior management team of nine, I discovered I was pregnant. I was on a business trip and my pregnancy was high-risk, so the doctors didn’t allow me to travel for the whole first trimester. While everyone was still working mostly from home because of COVID, I was told that I wasn’t able to influence decisions or engage in conversations with colleagues because I wasn’t available in the office. It was an “out of sight out of mind” kind of argument, which felt quite unfair and wrong.
Even before getting pregnant or becoming a mother, I was once asked by a venture capitalist I was pitching to if I was planning on getting married soon (I wasn’t even engaged at the time), and how I saw myself balancing my entrepreneurial career as a married woman or mother. Such questions are never addressed to men in the workforce.
And just recently, I met a woman in a professional setting who somehow felt obliged to share her “wisdom” with me on why women like me — who have babies in their thirties — can’t have it all and will inevitably have to sacrifice their careers. Such unsolicited advice would never be directed at men.
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’ve recently become a member of a community-based organization called Crunchmoms, which is a group of professional women helping each other with positive conversations, access to opportunities, and overall support. This allowed me to meet Sophie Smith, CEO of Nabta Health, who has become my co-founder in PeriCare, my new femtech startup focused on building products to serve the unmet needs of working mothers, including a state-of-the-art standalone nursing pod.
I also joined Newchip Accelerator and started mentoring a couple of women-led startups. I believe that my professional development will come not only from growing within my role in my company or any other, but also from consulting and advising other women leaders in the industry in order to collectively change the status quo. And the more women leaders do that, the easier it’s going to be for that change to come around.
How do you support women coming up behind you?
One of the things I focus on with the women on my team is explaining what I realized early on in my career, which is that being a professional woman comes with more responsibilities than what one’s job requires. I mentor each of them on their interpersonal development as well, especially leadership and communication skills, as well as how to set their own goals for growth. With the women entrepreneurs I mentor, I often find myself coaching them to be more confident with their financial aspirations, whether it’s the salary they budget for themselves when raising money for their startup, or the very goal of wanting to become rich entrepreneurs. I find women — especially impact-driven entrepreneurs — shy away from having financial aspirations.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
As an Arab, I was raised within a culture that values relationships, in and outside the workplace. I always expected to be friends with everybody I work with and thought of everyone as family. I would put a lot of weight on trust when making decisions such as who to hire, or who to bring on board as an investor. It took about a decade for me to realize that people I work with are not family, they are my sports team. I don’t need to love or protect them, but I should be ready to lift them up if they fall, so we can all continue working hard towards the win. We make stupid mistakes for our families, but a team player would only make smart choices to keep winning.
Read: Forging a path from PhD to MD to Amazon Web Services advisor