The CEO of a company that calls itself 'the future of law' says she still can't escape sexism at work - but she's on a mission to prove mentorship can break the glass ceiling

Elena Donio AxiomHollis Johnson/Business Insider

  • Elena Donio helms legal-talent marketplace Axiom, which refers to itself as "the future of law," and previously helped run SAP Concur - yet still encounters sexism.
  • Donio makes it her priority to mentor other women and encourage girls to get ahead at work.
  • Along with calling out sexism when she sees it, Donio tells women not to say "yes" to everything and to take time away from work if they want to spend it with their families.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Elena Donio is the CEO of a major legal talent company that filed to go public earlier this year.

She has 20 years of experience leading influential tech firms.

And she's sat on the board of companies like Twilio and PayScale.

But no matter her accomplishments or how far the corporate ladder she climbs, there's one thing that unites her with women at all levels in the workplace: Men interrupt her when she tries to speak.

"I was in a meeting relatively recently with an outside party, where I was cut off in mid sentence several times," Donio told Business Insider. "It was a fairy large room, and there were internal and external parties in the room, and there were even more junior Axiom teammates in that room."

"So I had to take a deep breath, and called this individual out, and said, 'If you continue to interrupt me, we're not going to get this meeting done, so you need to stop.'"

Donio's experience being the only women on executive teams motivated her to ensure tech and law become more inclusive for women. While she donates towards girls' coding programs and mentors young women, she said being a role model in her position can help others - like publicly calling out sexism when she sees it.

The importance of mentorship in the C-suite

Getting interrupted - whether on purpose or not - can be commonplace for women in the workplace. In meetings, women will go unnoticed if they don't speak up - but if they are vocal, men perceive them as "rude," studies show. CEOs like Donio face even greater scrutiny, as psychologists found female leaders are viewed as less "likeable" than their male counterparts.

Sheryl Sandberg has spoken about this interruption "paradox" that can occur during meetings. Men's interruptions often go unnoticed, but when women fight to answer questions, they get chastised.

While underlying sexism could be keeping women from entering the C-suite, mentorship might be the best way to break the glass ceiling. For instance, 32-year-old CFO Jamie Cohen of ANGI Homeservices recently told Business Insider her key to getting ahead was having a mentor, or "sponsor," at work that advocated for her and helped her up the ranks.

Donio makes mentoring women a priority by sponsoring coding programs for women, a school for African girls, and donating to female-focused charities. She also aims to mentor young women at Axiom as a leader, which is why she opted to call out the sexism. Donio said many young women even thanked her after the fact for standing up for herself.

"I think historically in my career, I probably wouldn't have done that," Donio said. "But it's become more important for me to call it out when I see it, because I think all of these people demand that of me."

The CEO has other ways she hopes to serve as a mentor to young women. She often tells women that careers don't follow a "straight line," and encourages them to take time off to focus on their family. Donio herself took a few years off to enjoy the time when her children were young.

"You can go away for a minute, you can come back and that's okay, because over time, as your children get older, a whole bunch of space begins to open up," she said.

Why women need to find leadership roles in industries without visibility

Donio also encourages women not to try and "do everything" - a pressure many women feel, as research finds it's harder for them to say "no" at work. Instead of trying to be a utility player and do everything, Donio encourages women to focus their time on one skill set and become an expert on it. Once they land leadership positions, she says to ask for help from team member so women don't get burned out.

Donio's last piece of advice to women is that if they have the option to be a leader - particularly in a space that's lacking women like law, tech, and finance - they should. That way, not only do more women get their voices heard, they can encourage other young women to follow in their footsteps.

"If we don't want the vast majority of the decisions made in politics, in science, in consumer products, in the financial world to be made by a single gender, we have to be in," she said.
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