Featured: Jessica Toth, SM ’91
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 alumna has pushed back on those statistics and used what she’s learned along the way to help those behind her.
Jessica Toth, SM ’91, executive director, Solana Center for Environmental Innovation
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 began on Wall Street in the mid-80s. Today I run an environmental nonprofit. The path to where I am now traversed all the middle ground you can imagine, including high tech, management consulting, international development aid, motherhood, and entrepreneurship.
Though I didn’t necessarily envision a specific field or career path, I did expect I’d reach some level of success earlier. At the same time, I reveled in the variety of jobs, always learning in new fields.
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?
There were women I admired for their determination and achievements. Unfortunately, not remaining in one field or job for long did not encourage such relationships. Instead, I’ve found that professional collaborations are very important, not just for the organizations that partner with us, but also for my own development. I learn so much from my peers – how they manage their organizations, staff, and finances.
I’m also proud to connect to these trailblazers: My 91-year-old mother — one of the first women engineers in the nation — and my two daughters, who contribute to mainstreaming medical and science careers for women today.
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 was oblivious to gender issues until bias was quite obvious. My first experience was as a swimming pool assistant manager in high school in the 1970s. I was paid less than another assistant manager so I walked into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office in Washington, D.C. No appointment and no idea what my story was. Only as I followed the progression of the agents’ questions did it dawn on me that this was about sexual discrimination: Yes, the other manager is male. Yes, there is evidence of gender bias, such as comments that female lifeguards have their movie tickets paid by boyfriends so they shouldn’t make as much money. The case settled out of court with back pay provided and corrected pay structures.
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?
An example of gender bias recently for me involved a potential client, who presents as macho, in cowboy boots and with exclusionary male banter before meetings. He was openly dismissive of me, as a woman representing a nonprofit. I continued to attend meetings, discussing our team’s expertise. Over a couple years, the need for our services became evident, and we were hired.
How do you support women coming up behind you?
I see my role as a mentor as one of the most important in my position. But it’s not only to younger women. I hope to impact any and all, from senior men and women in positions of authority to young people of any gender and orientation. Ultimately, we all need to be considered for our capabilities.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
In the mid-1990s, I co-founded an educational software company. The first product won acclaim, but the patented concept was 15 years ahead of its time. Recognizing that I couldn’t continue to run the business while starting my family was extremely difficult. But there is no doubt that the skills I gained as an entrepreneur support me in my current work.