Every working woman knows a woman who broke barriers and blazed a trail for others to follow. Maybe it was a grandmother who decided to break out of the traditional female nurse-or-teacher-or secretary pink collar ghetto. Maybe it was an aunt who was determined to climb the management ladder because she knew darn well that she was smarter than a lot of people ahead of her. Maybe it was a sister or cousin who stepped out of a conventional corporate career, started her own business and succeeded in turning a dream into shining reality.
Women's History Month honors trailblazing women in business and labor. We'd like to spotlight three "ordinary" women whose extraordinary stories might just inspire you to blaze your own trail. Their stories were featured in Center for Talent Innovation's book Ambition in Black & White: The Feminist Narrative Revised.
Charlene Drew Davis
In 1950, when Charlene Drew Jarvis was eight years old, her father, Dr. Charles Drew, a surgeon and researcher whose work culminated in the American Red Cross Blood Bank, died in a car accident, leaving his wife to raise their four children alone. "I saw how she took charge when he died," Drew Jarvis recalls. "I saw a remarkable woman take on all that she needed to take on to raise for children. She was independent and very gutsy."
Drew Jarvis' own career honors the examples set by both her mother and father. Armed with a Master's degree in psychology, a Dean of the School of Social Work at Howard University doubted she could complete her Ph.D. while raising young children. She proved him wrong. After eight years at the NIH, Drew Jarvis shifted tracks to public life, winning election to the Council of the District of Columbia (a seat she held for five terms) and becoming chair of the Council's Committee on Economic Development (a position she held for 19 years). Then she shifted careers again, taking on the presidency of the imperiled Southeastern University and waging -- and winning -- a nine-year battle to save its accreditation.
Social goals have been paramount in every role she ever took on, pushing her to shatter stereotypes about and break barriers for women and people of color. Her advice to those following in her footsteps: "If you set your sights on doing something -- and I saw the end goal as really important -- then you can succeed. Or, as my mother often said, 'Just put one foot in front of the other.'"
In 1970, when Geri Thomas accepted an offer for a temporary job at Citizens and Southern National Bank, the college student told her mother, "I'm going to have to straighten my hair." In fact, Thomas kept her Afro -- and she kept working for the next 45 years at what eventually became Bank of America, retiring as global chief diversity officer, one of the first black women of her generation to be an executive in a multinational corporation. She did it by investing her time in getting to know her co-workers and managers -- and by saying what she thought. Speaking her mind became so much a part of Thomas' "brand" that at her retirement party, she recalls, "Everybody noted: You could count on Geri to be utterly straight with you."
Looking back on her career, Thomas takes pride in the fact that she succeeded on the basis of who she was. "I did it on my terms. And at some point, my terms were okay with everybody else."
If Geri Thomas' and Charlene Drew Jarvis' stories are those of women overcoming societal barriers, Joanna Coles is an example of blazing past internal obstacles. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) shows that while women at the outset of their careers aspire to a position of power, that desire diminishes in their mid-thirties, as they fear that the responsibilities of a top job may deny them what they want.
Joanna Coles, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and chief content officer for Hearst Magazines, is determined to shatter that illusion. Having taken the most widely read women's magazine in the world and used it to elevate women's issues in politics, social policy, business and the workplace, Coles likes to stress how much she relishes the visibility the media platform affords her. "I didn't realize before I became editor-in-chief how much I was going to enjoy being in charge," she says. "I've been so exhilarated created direction for this magazine, seeing my ideas of what a magazine for women should be and watching it take shape over a number of issues. Of course, it requires a lot of other people. But I'm the person making the decisions. It's my vision I'm putting out there. And it's absolutely fabulous."
CTI research shows that when women perceive that a top job will give them what they want most from their careers, the impact on their aspiration for a position of power nearly triples. Ask any woman and she will tell you: There is nothing so exhilarating, so life-affirming, as seeing your commitment and passion culminate in sustained transformation.
Perseverance and dedication enabled these women to create their own paths for success and pave the way for the women who will follow in their footsteps.