In Pursuit of an Equal America
Mona Sinha ’93, Board Chair of both the Equal Rights Amendment Fund for Women’s Equality and Women Moving Millions, has made it her mission to promote women into positions of power across sectors.
Before dedicating her service to nonprofit leadership, Sinha had a successful career that began on Wall Street, where she worked as an investment banker. After earning her MBA at the Business School, Sinha transitioned to marketing and restructuring with companies such as Unilever and Elizabeth Arden, working on marketing and reframing strategy on a global scale.
In her success, Sinha has remained mindful of the specific obstacles facing women on the path to leadership, making it her goal to knock down those roadblocks wherever she can. Below, Sinha shares her thoughts on women’s rights, systemic inequities, and how to bring more female leaders into seats of power.
How did women’s rights become your mission?
I grew up in a family of three girls in India and saw the preference for males all around me. I volunteered at Mother Teresa’s orphanage when I was a child and saw that 90 percent of the kids there were girls; the boys got adopted.
When I was 19 and decided to leave home to study in the US, I intentionally picked a women’s college because I wanted to know what the secret sauce of being a powerful woman truly was. Smith College opened my eyes because in that supportive environment, I could dig deep into learning and have those intellectual debates without someone cutting me off. Although I was alone, I had the support of faculty members who were women trailblazers. Smith is where I met Gloria Steinem, who to this day is a dear friend and mentor, and she really inspired me.
Pivoting from Smith to a male-dominated Wall Street was a shock. My preparation at college in being able to stand up for myself and have a voice really helped me be successful on Wall Street. I’ve always stayed focused.
I see that women lead differently from men. In my experience, I’ve found that women leaders are more creative, they’re more collaborative, they listen carefully, seeking answers from a wide group before making decisions. This results in more robust outcomes not just for themselves, but for their families and for the communities they serve. This type of feminist leadership is much needed in the world today. My strong commitment to values of equality and justice have allowed me to focus my time, talent, philanthropy, investments – everything – where it can have the most impact – building women as leaders.
COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women of color – why do you think that is?
When we talk about inequity, we have to realize it’s systemic inequity that has resulted in the disproportionate impact on women and specifically women of color. These are systems that have been in place since colonizers came to our country and took the land from Native Americans and brought people over from Africa to work as slaves. This is not new; these are systems of oppression that have gone on for centuries and we’re just talking about them now because it’s become so glaring. Women are just as talented as men, but in many cases, systemic biases have stood in their way. Undoubtedly, women have made great progress in some sectors, yet there remains much to do. The pandemic has affected every area you see. In education, everything shifted online, but in America, many families do not have more than one computer that is shared between all the family members. If you have two kids and a working mom, how does that work? In the healthcare sector, most of the frontlines workers – doctors, nurses, medical assistants – are women, and many are women of color. They are saving the rest of the world, but their own health is being denied. Those most adversely affected by the pandemic did not have access to healthcare at all. If you look at personal safety, the rise in domestic violence during the pandemic has been huge. Even now, we are seeing a rise in domestic violence and sexual assault while women are stuck in isolation with abusive partners or family members. Many of these victims are from communities where they don’t have the resources to get out
How does this manifest economically?
The whole world is looking at America and saying, “What happened?” When you look at the systemic inequities that have existed for centuries, you recognize that the system was never created for women or people of color. The system was created for accumulating wealth for white men – the patriarchy. It’s incumbent upon us to start looking at the systemic inequities and asking how we can change them. Fundamentally, if you look at the success of the economic system in America, it’s a country that’s always valued innovation and the “American Dream” is that anyone can do well economically. But that’s not really true, because people of color have never been allowed to accumulate wealth. To put it in business terms, if you have $100, you can grow it to be $1,000, then compound it to be $10,000, and so on. But if you don’t have the ability to get that first $100, how are you ever going to accumulate wealth? If you can’t invest in home ownership, how are you going to build financial security? These are the systems that have acted against people of color and have segregated people. Communities of color haven’t been allowed to build reserves or invest their wealth in decades. It’s no surprise this is why huge wealth disparities exist today.
What can we do to fix the system?
The first thing is to put women in leadership positions. There’s absolutely no argument against the fact that a woman leader can achieve a huge amount. Even in the corporate world, we have very few women leaders at the heads of companies, even fewer women of color. There’s very little representation on boards. And representation matters. It matters greatly because it brings different perspectives from the community. Diversity in leadership is critical and women in leadership are critical. Next, we need to unpack this discriminatory system that we have built. It’s impossible for a white person to understand what it means for a black woman to have to teach her children how to talk to police officers. Even from an economic point of view, racial discrimination and violence is taking people who can contribute to an economy away from it. We need to understand and unpack systemic racial injustices that have always existed in our country and then put policies in place that would reverse those injustices. We also need to provide opportunities for minorities who have been marginalized to step into leadership positions and prosper economically.
How do we open all stages of the pipeline to get more female leaders?
It’s got to be more than just women supporting women. It has to be men and boys realizing that women are equally talented. Gendered norms start at a young age. Studies have shown that up to middle school, girls are equally ambitious as boys. And then as puberty hits, classroom behaviors change and the gendered mindsets start shifting. That is a key time when intervention is necessary. There’s got to be more openness and discussion around how boys can be allies and how girls can step into their authentic power. Once in careers, having sponsors and mentors who can understand and support you is important – I always say that every woman should have a list of women who they promote. I get asked all the time for suggestions for roles and I always have at least five suggestions ready. There’s no excuse for companies saying they looked for a diverse candidate but couldn’t find one. They haven’t looked hard enough. For women themselves, they have to be very confident in their own abilities. If you kick a door and it does not open, you’ve got to kick it harder. There needs to be self-growth and self-confidence to put yourself out there for positions. If a man is 60 percent qualified for a job, he’ll go for it, but women are perfectionists and might not. Businesses need to champion women because at the end of the day, the outcomes are much better the more diversity you have.