12 Inspiring Stories Celebrating the Efforts and Achievements of Women
As disruptive as the pandemic has been, it hasn’t stopped women from pursuing the goal of true equality, both now and into the future.
That is a reality at the core of the 2021 International Women’s Day (IWD) campaign, which is focused on the role that women leaders play in “achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.”
UN Women, one of the leading organizations in the promotion of events related to IWD, noted recently that women have carried a disproportionate burden on the front lines of the pandemic “as health care workers, caregivers, innovators, community organizers and some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic.”
The UN also noted many of the countries that have been most successful in controlling the spread of COVID-19 – Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Slovakia – are led by women. Conversely, only 20 countries worldwide board a female head of state.
As we celebrate IWD this year in such difficult circumstances, we at LHH would like to recognize the contributions that women make by showcasing some of our own women leaders and the influences that have helped shape their lives and careers.
Chief Innovation and Product Officer
“Early in my career, I worked in fairly male-dominant environments and didn’t have many strong female role models. Many of the women senior to me seemed to lead in a way that wasn’t very authentic and adopted behaviors that they felt were needed to succeed in a man’s world. I didn’t want to approach leadership with that mindset, so I have always strived to be true to who I am.
“Fortunately, I had a few women outside of work who influenced me in a big way, including my mum. She was a super smart lady and raised me to understand that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I also had some wonderful female teachers and professors who nurtured this sense that I could pursue my passions in life and that I wasn’t limited because I was a woman. I’ve tried to channel that mindset by being a leader who provides a springboard for others in their career—especially younger women. I’m trying to be the kind of role model that my mum and my teachers were for me.
“There’s been a real theme in my career around creating teams and environments where psychological safety is present, and I definitely see that as something that all leaders should promote. I have been in situations in the past where it didn’t feel okay to be myself or to have a voice, and I always found it more difficult to excel in those situations. And I have seen situations where other people were held back or missed out on opportunities because of their gender, education, background or even the way they spoke. In these types of situations, I try to challenge that behavior and feel we all have a responsibility to call those things out. I’ve always felt that if you are able to be fully yourself and you’re able to put your whole self into your work, you have the best chance of thriving and being successful.”
SVP, Global Product Manager
“Like many women, I didn’t have many great female role models early in my career. I worked in financial services and consulting, and these were very male-dominated industries. However, I did have my mother as a role model. She headed up our family business and led finance, marketing, and sales. Watching her and getting involved early on influenced my wish to become a business leader and to drive change in strategic roles.
“Overall, I learned that, as a woman, the more knowledge you have about your business—especially financial KPIs that drive the P&L—the more people will recognize you as someone who not only can talk your organization’s language but who actually understands the key levers. People will see you as someone with business acumen and financial savviness, which is important to work at the right level.
“Over my career and as a leader, I have learned about the power of reciprocity. That it’s just as important to give to people as it is to receive. I really do believe that if I give something to someone, they will eventually give something back—be it to myself or someone else. I think this lends itself to the theme for International Women’s Day this year: #EachforEqual. This speaks to the fact that if we are a more gender equal world, we can be a more enabled world. We can do that through things like reciprocity.”
Practice Lead, Talent Development
“I have had many role models throughout my career, including leaders who showed me what good leadership is and the positive impact it can have on others.
Last year I wrote about how I have been inspired by individuals who have suffered from great adversity and have managed to bounce back and thrive. I talked about the inspiring Turia Pitt, who is an Australian woman who was the victim of a bushfire and fought an extensive battle to overcome her injuries. She reminds me that, although we can’t always control the events in our life, we can control our reaction to them.
One year later, I have reflected on this. Last year was such a challenging year for so many and it tested our levels of strength and resilience in so many ways. However what did we learn? How do we use this experience to consider those less fortunate, to count our blessings and create opportunity for others? For me, one of those opportunities is that I will strive to support as many sisters, daughters and mothers as I can, to ensure they believe in themselves and to help them face less barriers than the women before them.
So I still believe that you should never stop learning and seeking feedback, to not let an awareness of your own development areas impact your self-belief. And just as important, is to support those around you, to demonstrate empathy and connect with others. And as you progress in your own career, let’s consider what we can do to pay it forward and inspire and coach those around us."
“I am most fortunate to have an incredible role model in my grandmother, Lorene VanLeeuwen. A child of the Great Depression, she knew that education and hard work were the keystones to success. At a time when most women stayed home, she worked as a teacher, secretary, and postmaster for her small town. At 89, she decided to learn computers and went back to take college classes. Today, at 105 years old, she has an iPad, is on Facebook, and regularly communicates with her great-great grandchildren. She is still learning new things every day.
“The key lesson I learned from her was to never stop learning. If you learn, you grow—and as you grow, you can teach others by your example. I would also echo my grandmother’s advice to never stop embracing challenges. When we embrace a challenge, we think beyond the everyday and do more than we thought was possible.”
“Deciding to become a leader is a challenge that will affect your whole life. It’s not just your job; becoming a leader affects your role as a mother, a spouse or partner, and your position in the family. It’s a daily challenge that you need to accept to become a better person and better leader. Like the decision to become a mother, the decision to take on leadership affects everything.
There were a lot of people and leaders who inspired me during my career journey, including my mother and father. In different phases of my life, they inspired and challenged me to work with different people and cultures, expanding my point of view and also creating my own way to become a leader.
The first lesson I learned is that, as a woman, you don’t need to be afraid of being a leader. And you should not expect people to treat you differently, simply because you are a woman. As a woman, you are no different than any leader, male or female. We may have specific attributes that are inherent in us as women, and that can help us lead in a better or more effective way in certain situations. We are more organized, practical, flexible, and we can make adjustments more easily than men. That is a great benefit for any leader.
I also learned that you do not have to avoid having a family to be an executive leader. A lot of younger women think that if they want to become an executive, they cannot have a family. I try to explain that you can do both things. You don’t need to separate these roles—leader and mother. Instead, you need to integrate them, and you will become a better leader. There are always ways you can do both things in your life and I’m sure, that after COVID, everybody has had to learn how to integrate the roles and we can achieve better results.”
“My first role model was my mother. The part that really influenced me as a youngster was her belief around women and girls being able to take on any challenge without fear. This was a lesson that helped me quite a bit in my first career in criminology, working in halfway houses and with people with addictions who had been in the justice system. It was a very male-dominated profession, and my mother helped me see that I could still succeed even in a place where there were not a lot of people who looked like me.
“My second role model was my first boss in the consulting world. For him, gender was not a factor. He was only concerned about hiring and promoting people who were capable of doing great things, regardless of whether they were men or women. He also really helped me change my beliefs around getting involved in sales and how to engage with our clients. I was very skeptical about a career in sales, but he showed me how rewarding it could be and how it could be pivotal in moving to a leadership role.
“I think women let assumptions and mindset get in their own way a lot of the time. One of the things that I learned when I first started out in the consulting world was that I could master new things. I never thought I’d be involved in sales and had this negative vision of the stereotypical used car salesmen. My mindset changed as I spent more time with customers. I realized sales is about building relationships, helping the customer solve problems, and finding solutions that lead to making strong long-term connections.
“The irony was that I had been shown the ropes in sales by a number of older men, and I thank them for encouraging me. But pretty quickly, I realized a lot of my customers were actually women like me. Ultimately, I saw that I had an advantage because customers expressed a preference for dealing with me. I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I had not been able to change my mindset around what I could and could not do. As women, we need to share our aspirational goals, keep an open mind about the things we can achieve, and realize our differences can become our strengths.”
EVP & Chief Marketing Officer
“My first female manager at Dell was a woman named Lory Pilchik, who taught me many great lessons, including how to be an influencer. And to approach any influencing you do with as much data as possible so you’re not getting into an emotionally based or subjectively based argument. It’s the whole idea that data is your friend, or the trend is your friend. Those lessons really resonated with me, and I try to abide by that guidance today. More often than not, specifically in a strong tech, male-dominated environment, female leaders are not going to be successful in an emotionally charged conversation.
“Lory and other role models also taught me about taking care of themselves outside of work. Investing in exercise and yoga or meditation, which keep us healthy in mind and in body. Those are the things that keep us strong when times get tough.”
“Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that career and work is not a zero-sum game. By that, I mean that someone doesn’t need to lose in order for you to win. That has really stuck with me. That’s why I aspire to be a proponent of investing in others, particularly in women, and helping lift them up and show them that they can get ahead without doing it at someone else’s expense.”
SVP, Managing Director, TLD
“I met so many people along my journey who had an impact, both positive and negative. I was inspired by leaders who really encouraged me and gave me a sense that I could tackle anything—they had more confidence in me than I had in myself. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I really credit my mom for convincing me that I could do anything I wanted to—it started with her. She wasn’t the only one who had that kind of confidence in me, but she was the first person who really helped me see the possibilities.
“My mom returned to school later in her life. She was a university graduate in the 1950s and ultimately became a teacher. She was independent, confident, and passionate. She was involved in the community; she was a very dedicated teacher. It was quite an accomplishment; she got her university degree when I was seven and headed out on a whole new career. She is and was a powerful role model for me.
“I think the most important lesson is that we have a choice as women to find environments and surround ourselves with people who support women in leadership. When I speak to young women, I tell them that if you don’t think there are opportunities for you where you are, you can go out and find a place where you will be supported in your goals. There is no reason why women need to stay somewhere where there isn’t encouragement to seek and achieve leadership goals.
“I also feel that it’s important for women to learn how to talk about their accomplishments and ambitions. We need to become comfortable speaking about what we’ve accomplished and what we want to accomplish. There are a lot of women who need to become more comfortable talking about themselves that way. We really do need to become more comfortable sharing that with other people, so others know what you’ve done and what you want to do next with your career. We can’t leave it to other people to speak for us.”
“My first role model was my sister. She was 14 years older and broke through a lot of barriers. She and others were pioneers in steamrolling pathways for women. When she told her school guidance counselor she wanted to get a degree in economics, he immediately suggested, “Home Economics?” Undeterred, she got her PhD in economics and became a senior executive at the Federal Reserve Bank in the U.S. When I did my economics degree more than a decade later, it was considered normal.
“The biggest lesson is the importance of believing in yourself. I was lucky in that I was able to ignore gender stereotypes and just get on with my work. I started in the energy field, and I didn’t really notice that I was often the only woman in the room. I realize now I was blessed to be surrounded by men who didn’t make gender an issue. They were very analytical and cared most about getting the right result. It was a strong meritocracy.
“Similarly, I got my first major promotion to VP and group lead when I was five months pregnant. My boss knew that I was going to be on maternity leave, but it didn’t matter—he still saw me as the right person for the job. He was very analytical and fair-minded, and his confidence in me led to great results for the company. I realize now he was a very special man.”
"I have been fortunate to be surrounded by women leaders early on who have influenced me in a big way.
"My mum taught me audacity. Whether it was winning $1000 in an essay contest on my first try at writing, being selected to represent the country at a Science Conference which was a subject I least enjoyed or starting my own business on $250, most of my success just came from audaciously "going for it." Most folks think, "That could never happen for me." My mum taught me to think, "Why not me?"
"My first manager, Geetha Rajagopal, taught me what it means to seize the moment. I learned that once you have an opportunity, what you do with it is key. You are in control of your life. You define what being successful means, whether that is being a mother, a wife, or being the CEO of a company. You define who you become.
"My mentor, Nicky Wakefield helped me to understand that I could have a career and a family simultaneously. I learnt that there are no set rules on how to create balance, it takes courage to constantly negotiate and adjust. Being a hero and trying to do it all simply doesn’t work.
"Finally, I would say, Dare to be extraordinary. No matter how challenging the road ahead is, move forward with conviction and believe in yourself. Don’t underestimate your ability to achieve great things!"
Talent Development Manager, Diversity & Inclusion
“Fortunately, I had several important role models in my personal and professional life. I had a mother, grandmother, and aunts who always reinforced the importance of work and treating everyone with equality and respect. I had teachers who inspired me to enjoy reading and studying and who showed me, even back then, that a woman can be independent and happy alone and that work can be an important source of personal development. I had leaders (women and men) who encouraged me to overcome my limits and fears. Of course, there were countless friends who taught me the power of sorority and who laughed and cried with me along the way. Finally, I had a life partners who helped me reflect and seek to improve myself all the time.
“I have had to mature to understand what lifelong learning means in practice. When we are faced with a need to change ourselves, it can seem quite confusing and frustrating at the time. But each time we change, we are moving step by step towards a better world. I have also learned as a leader that empathy and courage are very valuable assets.
“A big focus of my life has been learning how to ‘be you.’ You need to invest your time and energy to discover who you are and then act on that to become the best version of yourself. Then, you can share your best with the world.”
"It is so important for leaders to be vulnerable, to dare to go into the unknown and to really reflect on our decisions. I learned this at a very early stage in my life. I have learned to look at things from many different angles and that allows me to consider different viewpoints in the decision-making process.
"Vulnerability is about showing people that you are a human being. One of the first things I changed within the Dutch organization was the culture around making mistakes. I really put a lot of attention to the people and a lot of emphasis on the fact that we are humans and that it is necessary to make mistakes. This was something that people didn’t feel and behave like, so mistakes were not talked about nor we could learn from them. This change turned into a quick win. People could relax a little bit more and we could implement changes due to the learnings from our mistakes.
"In times of uncertainty, you can’t be an uncertain leader. Being human and supporting people who are insecure or fearful of the future requires that you are a leader who understands how to balance the human element, while projecting strength and resilience. In uncertain times, being open and empathetic remain critical, but you also need to be a pillar of strength and the person who everyone can rely upon."