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Women Leaders Share Moments Of 2017 That Redefined Their Roles

Twelve women executives discuss how pivotal headlines caused them to rethink their values and transform their approach to leadership.

Women Leaders Share Moments Of 2017 That Redefined Their Roles
[Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images]

The news this year has been filled with controversies, crises, and challenges generated from all corners of every industry, from our government to nonprofits and across the private sector. 

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Related:  This “Me Too” Timeline Shows Why 2017 Was A Reckoning For Sexism


But did any of these events create lasting change? Employees expect their leaders to restate their values and workplace policies when news stories challenge long-held beliefs. We asked women leaders from a variety of businesses to tell us what news inspired them to rethink their responsibility to guide their employees. Here’s what they told us.

Making A Case For Facts In A Post-Truth World

“Skepticism and uncertainty are the heart and soul of science. But in today’s post-truth world, confidence and certainty are the coins of the realm. This disconnect has led to creeping doubts about the value of science, and—increasingly—an abject refusal to accept established facts. I think of science as something incredibly precious. And I believe that great science will save more lives, and further decrease pain and suffering and inequity in the world. But none of this matters if policy and society aren’t influenced by scientific evidence. That’s why, this year, I felt compelled to make the case for facts in various speeches, interviews, op-eds, and social posts. And I encouraged colleagues at the foundation—and all of us who care about data-based decision making–to speak up and speak out repeatedly and relevantly in defense of science.”

–Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Finding Strength In Organized Numbers

“The Women’s March was so interesting because it was so organized, not just in D.C. but in every town. If we could do that for policy, if women really stepped forward in that organized way, holy moley. As a business owner, I think a lot about access, as a leader of women entrepreneurs I get viscerally pissed about [lack of] access to capital, that is banking and venture capital, even though every shred of data shows we outperform our counterparts. It is what really inspired me to jump in to Alice. We have all these users and we can band together to be a pretty loud organized voice. I think the next step right now is harnessing it for access. What if we got every funder from banks to venture capital to say, ‘I’m just going to increase [funding] by 5%’? That amount of capital is nuts, it would be in the trillions, and it would make more money.

“On a personal level, I’ve been a little stronger and tougher in the work I do with Dell, in my policy work, even the post-fire recovery here in Sonoma County, with a lot of good, well-meaning, older white males. I don’t think about the way I am speaking. If I have an opinion it is out there now. I am tired of holding back on the stuff that is absolutely egregious.”

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–Elizabeth Gore, chairman of the board of Alice; entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell

Committing To Support Women’s Health

“While women’s health continues to be politicized, Rent the Runway is committed to offering excellent healthcare for our employees, 70% of whom are women. This includes continuing to cover birth control even if there is now a rule that says we don’t have to.”

– Jennifer Hyman, CEO and cofounder of Rent the Runway

Fighting Cybercrime With Passionate Collaboration

“Breaches seem to be in the headlines everywhere, but for me they are personal. My own social media account was hacked several years ago, and it was a nightmare. That has fueled my passion and motivation to defend against cybercriminals.

“I jumped at a chance to work on cybersecurity at AT&T, in my case using algorithms to catch malicious domain names. This is what struck me: The bad guys are passionate. They want to make money and cause chaos. If we want to stay ahead of them, we need to be even more passionate.

“On the technical side, we know that attacks often start with malicious domains that look similar to real domains. So, we’ve been using data-powered algorithms to refine our detection. This requires advanced knowledge of machine-learning methodologies and neural networks. The techniques have to work efficiently since we move 185 petabytes daily across our network.

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“On the personal side, a collegial and open atmosphere is critical. Our coffee breaks are fascinating. They feel like informal, open-ended discussions on the latest advancements in technology. We share formally at demo sessions every three weeks, and we ask each other a lot of questions. Sometimes I feel like I work to impress my colleagues, but that works pretty well because the bad guys are not going away.”

–Aarthi Reddy, principal data scientist, AT&T

Advancing Women’s Entrepreneurship In The Wake Of Sexism

“For those of us working in Silicon Valley for decades, we’ve always been painfully aware of the small percentages of female leadership in tech and the barriers to female advancement, ranging from gender bias in recruiting to outright predatory behavior.

“So the alarming headlines this year have not been surprising nor necessarily the catalyst for new policies or behavior. For example, before the Binary Capital news hit, I wrote this editorial in the Nikkei newspaper in March: ‘Where are All the Women?’

“What the persistent headline coverage in mainstream news this spring and summer has done for us, however, is given us the opportunity to highlight positive initiatives to advance and celebrate women in tech such as Broadway Angels and theboardlist.

“The media spotlight has given us all more urgency in our push for more diversity in our startups and their boards, and in visible forums like conferences. The worst thing that the news coverage could do is to intimidate or demotivate young women from aspiring to careers in tech.”

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–Joanna Drake, general partner with Core Ventures and C200 board member

Using The Anti-Diversity Screed To Reach Parity

“As a scientist, an entrepreneur, and a feminist, the anti-diversity letter leaked from a (now former) Google engineer triggered self-doubt and made me consider the role of females in the workplace. Finding a solution to this type of sexism keeps me up at night. I can’t help but wonder what I will tell my young daughter once she steps into the real world and is old enough to possibly experience sexism herself.

“As I look to grow my own organization, this letter encouraged me to aim for ‘50% in all’–this means having at least 50% women in our management team, the board of directors, etc. I also look for ways to start conversations about and promote gender diversity and equality among my own colleagues. I hold myself accountable to achieving this and believe it will make a true difference in advancing gender equality in the workplace.”

–Dr. Karin Lachmi, cofounder and chief scientific officer at Bioz

Using Inflammatory Tweets To Maintain Civil Conversations

“Under the current administration, Americans now wake up daily to overnight tweets from President Trump; the overscrubbed press release is out, and the impulsive 140-character stinger is in. While we may be divided on the usefulness of the ensuing, heated back and forth sociopolitical jabs, such communication is rarely effective in the office.

“This leadership style underscores how important maintaining civil and understanding conversations are in times of conflict. Because of this, I have made an active effort to pay attention and encourage discipline and some measures of forethought before communicating on sensitive items with colleagues and work teams. As I look to further my own professional development as a leader at a startup, I aim to support my colleagues’ creativity and passion, while also practicing mutual respect and active listening. I also try to encourage those around me to do the same.”

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–Ann Collins, senior vice president of pharmaceutical and life sciences strategy at Cota

Taking Decisive Action

“Seeing the devastating aftermath in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria tore through the island wasn’t a wakeup call; it was a call to action.

“I heard stories of emergency crews unable to respond to those in need because their radios couldn’t be charged. I saw footage of people forced to collect and drink contaminated water in plastic bottles. Sunrun partnered with nonprofits and first responders to go to Puerto Rico and take immediate action—mobilizing within days to install solar equipment at fire stations to power critical systems day and night.

“So much of what we do in business is planned out and calculated month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter. The power crisis in Puerto Rico reinforced the importance of recognizing a need when you see it—and taking decisive, immediate action to be part of the solution.”

–Lynn Jurich, chief executive officer, Sunrun

Using Small Actions To Support Big Issues

“I’ve always been a fixer, or someone who felt uncomfortable addressing a challenge if I didn’t have a solution. This year has shown me that simply acknowledging someone’s challenge–not necessarily solving it–can have a huge impact on how they’re doing and how included they feel at work.

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“For example, the marriage equality vote in Australia this year was incredibly difficult for our LGBT employees. That wasn’t an issue Atlassian as a company could solve. Instead, we decided to show support the best way we knew how: By lighting up our Sydney HQ in rainbow lights, printing “love is love” T-shirts, and acknowledging it at our companywide town hall meetings.

“Hearing my colleagues say they felt recognized and safe because of these small actions have fundamentally changed my view: I can be a better teammate just by providing empathy–not just solutions.”

— Aubrey Blanche, Atlassian global head of diversity & inclusion

“This year, we saw Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot, Atlas, do a backflip off a raised platform and land perfectly on its feet–an incredibly difficult and groundbreaking achievement for a robot. The technological advancement in AI was met with both awe and skepticism. The digital era doesn’t have to be a battle of human versus robot. Certain skills will become redundant, while many new jobs will be created. Yes, we are in a digital revolution, but we should not underestimate the value of the human connection. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten in my career is to be a collector of new experiences and be open to perspectives that are different to our own. Welcoming the new has never been more important than it is now.”

–Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup North America

Using Principles And Purpose To Guide Decisions

“From data breaches to customer service fails, this year we have seen headlines condemn companies for the results of poor decision making. Such misfortunes have further accelerated my drive to always ask the question, ‘Why?’ and ‘To what end?’ on both an individual and organizational level.

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“In my pursuit to seek answers to these questions from colleagues and clients, I’ve validated that emotion guides us as customers, and it’s a sense of purpose that we crave. As I both reflect on 2017 and look to the future, it’s clear to me that our principles and a genuine sense of purpose must guide each and every business decision.”

-Melissa Waggener Zorkin, CEO of WE Communications

Opening A Necessary Dialogue

“Most of what we’re hearing lately is happening all the time, it’s not new news. The change has been in the people willing to speak up and speak out. The various issues were always out there, but women are now feeling more comfortable and confident enough to speak out and crack a major cycle.

“In the midst of some of these [sexual harassment] allegations, a few of fuse.it’s investors reached out directly to me to see if I had ever been approached in an inappropriate way. It was genuinely important to them to know I felt comfortable and safe as a woman entrepreneur. It opened up a dialogue between us to discuss the issue as part of a wider problem.”

–Liat Sade-Sternberg, CEO of fuse.it.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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