Getting recognized for your professional achievements is an ongoing challenge. Even tougher? Ascending in an industry in which executive women are scarce, if not nonexistent.
To find out what it takes to get ahead in a male-dominated field, we talked to six leaders who have reached impressive career peaks despite steep uphill climbs. Many were the first and only women in their respective companies when they started. The wisdom they’ve gained (hint: be open-minded about where you’ll end up, focus on results and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know the answer) are the truest of gems.
So, when you feel frustrated about reaching the next step in your career get inspired by the resolve of these forces of nature — women who went up against enormous odds but never stopped striving for excellence.
Lenore Janis, President and CEO of Professional Women in Construction
Growing up in White Plains, New York, Lenore Janis had the message drummed into her loud and clear that construction was not for girls. She remembers her father, who ran a steel fabrication and erection company, telling her at age 14, “Your brothers will run the business when I retire and maybe you can keep the books.” And although she did end up in the field, her original career plan was a world away from that. “I studied dance and theater at Bennington College, and did all the things that ‘good girls’ did back then,” she says. “I got my degree, went to work for a PR firm, married and had two children.”
But in 1972, her life took an unexpected turn. Her marriage broke up and since she didn’t receive any spousal support from her ex-husband, she had to figure out a way to make a living. At that point, her mother owned the steel business (her father had passed away), so she suggested that Janis come and work for the company. Her brothers weren’t happy about the plan, but they eventually relented.
At first, she saw joining the family business as a natural, easy way to earn a salary to support her kids. “Little did I know, I would fall in love with construction,” says Janis. “I loved the challenge, and to be perfectly honest, I loved that it paid good money. After all, I had to bring up two little boys and afford to send them to college on my own.”
In 1979, she started her own steel erection company, ERA Steel Construction. Being a woman-owned and operated business had both upsides and downsides. One advantage: just as she launched ERA Steel, a government stipulation was issued mandating that any construction project using public funds had to contract out a certain amount of work to woman- or minority-run businesses. As one of the only steel erection companies managed by a woman, she consequently landed a lot of contracts and had several very successful years.
She also received tremendous publicity (she was profiled in The New York Times standing on the high steel in a hard hat and heels) and notoriety in an area of construction that traditionally wasn’t deemed woman-friendly: the Concrete Industry Board Award, the Brick Industry Award and the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen Craftsmanship Award. But while being one of very few woman in her field did afford press opportunities, it also presented obstacles.
When she applied for a federal SBA loan to open ERA Steel, she learned that women could only receive a maximum of $25,000, compared with $150,000 for men. And many of the people who hired her company were resentful that they’d been “forced” by the government to choose her. She recalls contractors telling her things like, “This job should have gone to my brother-in-law.”
“There was one major contractor who consistently hired us for publicly funded undertakings, but when I asked them if I could bid on their private jobs (which weren’t incentivized to hire minority-run businesses), they declined — even though we did good work at reasonable prices,” says Janis.
Women weren’t welcome to join the professional construction organizations that existed at the time, which was a key way to make connections and land deals. So in 1980, Janis and 11 other women in the industry formed their own group: Professional Women in Construction (PWC). “We realized that we had more power if we banded together, as well as a shoulder to cry on when we were treated unfairly,” she explains.
She is now the full-time director of PWC and the organization’s membership numbers have swelled from 12 individuals to over 1,000. In addition to their New York City-based national office, they have started chapters in New Jersey, DC and Connecticut. “Women in construction have made a scratch in the concrete ceiling but we still have so much further to go,” says Janis. “Hopefully some day men in the industry will be as convinced as we are that there is nothing we can’t do, and we’ll see more women CEOs leading the country’s top construction companies.”
Ruth Jones, Mishap Investigation Specialist at the NASA Safety Center
Being a NASA astrophysicist might be about the last career you’d imagine having growing up in West Helena, Arkansas, a small town of about 9,000 people. “There wasn’t much going on in my hometown — we have one Walmart, one McDonald’s and a casino,” Jones says. “Although not many people where I’m from go to college, I knew that if I didn’t get out of there I’d end up flipping burgers or working in the casino.” Initially, her plan was to go into the Air Force so she could travel and attend school for free. But a temporary illness prevented her from joining the military, and instead she won a full scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
She started out as an accounting major, but never felt challenged. Her math professor convinced her to change her major to physics junior year. “He failed to mention that I was the only physics major on campus — so there I was, sitting in class, just me and the professor!” Jones laughs. “But I ended up loving it. Physics is the basis for everything that happens in life: If I play tennis, sit in a chair or work on my computer, physics is behind how it all operates.”
As soon as she switched majors, her dream became to work with NASA. She secured an internship with the Goddard Space Flight Center her junior year, then continued doing internships and co-ops with NASA throughout undergrad and graduate school. She was the first woman to graduate from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics, and the second African-American female to receive a Doctorate in physics in the state of Alabama. She received her MS and PhD in physics/material science from Alabama A&M University.
She began her career as an optical materials physicist at NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, working on large aperture replicated optics including the Hubble Space Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope. Now, she’s a mishap investigation specialist for the NASA Safety Center. Whenever an unplanned event occurs — for example, a satellite doesn’t reach orbit or perform as expected, or someone is exposed to dangerous chemicals or electrocuted — Jones launches an investigation to find out the root of the problem. During her career, she has received the Wings of Excellence Award, as well as the Center Director’s Commendation Award from both Marshall Space Flight Center and Glenn Research Center.
As a black woman, she has encountered challenges in a traditionally white man’s world. Occasionally, she has received a disparaging comment, like that women aren’t supposed to go into science or have PhDs. “I just let it roll off my shoulders. I’m a strong-willed person and I know who I am, why I’m here and what I’m doing,” she asserts. “Some people think that women should just stay in the kitchen and have babies, but I was taught that I could do everything I wanted to do as long as I put my mind to it.”
As one of very few women in her field, she enjoys performing outreach and actively serving as an inspiration to other young women. Jones gives all the students she mentors her email address, and eventually her cell phone number. She regularly receives emails from students telling her that if it weren’t for her encouragement, they would have quit school a long time ago.
Likewise, Jones credits her support system for her success. “I also think my attitude has helped me get ahead,” she adds. “My motto is that I try not to stress about things I have no control over.” Finally, Jones isn’t afraid to confess that she doesn’t know the answer to something. “A lot of people try to cover up an area of ignorance, but I don’t see it as a weakness,” she says. “I believe that admitting you’re unsure gives you power — because as soon as you concede that you’re in the dark about a certain subject, you can begin to become enlightened about it.”
Elizabeth Falkner, Chef, Pastry Chef, Author, and TV Personality
For Elizabeth Falkner, cooking isn’t just about preparing delicious food — it’s a form of high art. She looks at the juxtaposition of temperatures and flavors with the same thought and creativity that painters approach the canvas. “I understand the traditional technique, and then I reinvent it and make it my own,” she explains. “It’s kind of the equivalent of a saxophone player who’s going to a jam session with a bunch of other musicians.” She and her team start out with a loose idea in mind, and then improvise the recipe as they go along — often with results worthy of a standing ovation.
Falkner catered during college and held jobs at the first Williams-Sonoma in San Francisco, a small Italian deli and an ice cream store. But despite the fact that she practically has extra virgin olive oil running through her blood, it was decades before she considered cooking as a viable career path.
She was initially drawn to abstract filmmaking and obtained a degree in the subject from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1989. She began working in a small production company during the day, but at night she took on a side job as a cook at a bare-bones French bistro. Armed with just two electric burners and a toaster oven, she managed to create such mouthwatering confections that she was soon promoted to head chef.
“I realized that I could create masterpieces in a restaurant much faster and more prolifically than I could sitting at a desk for hours editing film,” she says. “The California food revolution was happening all around me, and I looked at chefs like Jeremiah Tower, Cindy Paulson and Nancy Silverton the way most kids idolize movie stars. I wanted to be a part of that world.”
From there, she scored a big deal job as an assistant chef at Masa’s, a high-end restaurant in downtown San Francisco. Then, in a gutsy move for a 28-year-old, she approached Traci Des Jardins and convinced the renowned chef to hire her to make pastries. “I told her that I loved her food, but her desserts were lackluster, and I could do better,” says Falkner. “I brought in drawings of ideas I had, which was unheard of, and I got the job.”
Falkner eventually opened her own restaurant, Citizen Cake, in 1997. The popular San Francisco-based joint served up casual lunch fare on homemade bread baked in a wood-burning oven and eccentric pastries with poetic names like “Suddenly Last Summer” (peaches sautéed in white wine and honey with a walnut-thyme streusel). It had a 14-year run, after which she moved to New York and opened restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Even though Falkner has risen like crème fraiche to the top of her field, being a woman in the heavily male-dominated restaurant business hasn’t always been a smooth ride. When she was first getting her foot in the door in the ‘90s, female chefs weren’t receiving much recognition within their industry. “The James Beard Awards [for excellence in all aspects of the culinary field] never went to women in those days — luckily this past year, they swept the awards,” says Falkner. (The Foundation nominated her for “Pastry Chef of the Year.”) And although Falkner herself has been lavished with love from the press, she points out that the media often overlooks other talented female chefs.
She has also occasionally experienced pushback from men working under her. “I have had male employees who don’t like me running the show,” she says. “Some people like the daddy in the role of chef, not the mommy.” After losing in the final round of “Next Iron Chef, Super Chef,” she remembers her competitor telling her, “You’re a very talented young lady.” “I told him that wasn’t respectful — I’m a chef, not a ‘young lady,’” she says. “He didn’t really get it. I think it’s often a subconscious bias.”
Not that Falkner lets that stand in the way of pursuing her passion — or success. She has racked up a tower of accolades over the years. Bon Appetit named her “Pastry Chef of the Year” in 2006, San Francisco magazine deemed her “Pastry Chef of the Year” in 1999 and she also won a Golden Bowl award in 2003 from Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, where she is currently the president of the board. She also serves as an ambassador to the Cooking Institute of America and is a member of Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization for women in the food business.
Perhaps thanks to her background in sports — she played competitive soccer for 28 years — Falkner has also received success as a mainstay on the culinary competition circuit. She’s a three-time competitor in the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” series and “Food Network’s Challenge,” and was a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.” She has also judged several episodes of “Top Chef.” “The food matches on TV are like soccer meets cuisine,” she says. “I look at it like a fun match: I’m going to make some kickass stuff and beat these people!”
Kathleen Murphy, President of Personal Investing at Fidelity
Even though she’s had a wildly successful career, Kathleen Murphy didn’t have a clear vision of what her profession should be at first. “I have just always been drawn to interesting, challenging work where I could make a difference,” she explains.
A double major in political science and economics, she attended law school and was offered six-figure jobs from the top Wall Street law firms following graduation. Instead, she ended up accepting a position in the legal department at Aetna, where she was involved in government affairs and lobbying work representing the company on healthcare reform. The salary was half of what she would have netted in a big New York City firm, but the content of the work fascinated her. “I loved the intersection of public policy, business, legal issues and the Aetna job encompassed those three elements,” Murphy says.
She rose through the ranks quickly, eventually becoming General Counsel of the financial services business. In 2000, ING bought Aetna Financial Services and Murphy was named chief administrative officer of ING’s North and South American businesses. The CEO, who Murphy worked closely with, ultimately asked her to run a collection of businesses. Her new department was the largest growth unit in ING worldwide at the time, making significant contributions to company earnings. She worked in that capacity for several years before joining Fidelity in 2009 as the president of Personal Investing, (which also includes Fidelity’s advertising, mobile and online strategies), its workplace savings business for tax-exempt organizations and Fidelity’s insurance business.
Once she delved into the world of finance and investing, Murphy found that she was one of a handful of women in a sea of males. Shortly after joining ING, she participated in a conference of 200 leaders — with just seven women in attendance. “Luckily, with three brothers, I’m used to aggressive males!” she jokes.
Early in her career, she sensed an attitude of “let’s see if she can do it,” both from above and below. She has had to manage men who were much older than her, with some co-workers expressing skepticism about whether she would be an effective leader. “My response to such people was simply to work really hard, add value and let my performance speak for itself,” says Murphy. “There’s a quote from Benjamin Franklin that I love, ‘Well done is better than well said.’”
Well done indeed. Murphy was named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in American Business” by Fortune magazine, one of the “Wall Street Top 50” and “Business 100” by Irish America magazine and one of the “25 Most Powerful Women in Finance” by US Banker.
She attributes her success to working hard to understand her businesses in great depth and to the high expectations she sets, both for herself as a leader and for her team. “Playing sports growing up has shaped my action-oriented approach to business,” adds Murphy. “I’m focused on the points on the scoreboard, teamwork and collaborative effort. Results are gender neutral: Are you winning or not?”
Above all, Murphy values hard work. “I’ve always had a passion for excellence — both to be personally challenged and to add value to my organization,” she says. Another favorite quote of hers is from Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi: “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence.” In other words, if it’s worth doing, then do it really well.
Val Ackerman, Commissioner of the Big East Conference
There weren’t many opportunities for girls to play sports in the mid- to late ‘60s, when Val Ackerman was growing up in Pennington, a small town in central New Jersey. It’s arresting to realize that if she had let that old-fashioned bias get to her, the world might very well have missed out on one of the greatest leaders in sports.
Luckily, her dad, a high school athletic director, basketball referee and coach, was always supportive of her interests — and she was courageous enough to join the boys. “My memories as a kid were of playing sports of all kinds with my dad: Shooting basketballs in our driveway hoop, throwing around a baseball or football, tennis, mini golf,” she says. “You name it, we played it.” In high school, she was on the field hockey and basketball teams, ran track and swam at a community club.
She entered University of Virginia in 1977, as one of the college’s first female athletic scholarship recipients for basketball. She played full-time throughout school, and since there was no WNBA at the time, she joined a pro team in France for a season after graduation before returning to the States to attend law school.
Her dream was to find a job that combined sports and law, and in 1988, she attained a position as staff attorney at the NBA. A couple of years later, she was promoted to assist David Stern, then-commissioner of the NBA. He had set his sights on how the NBA could engage and support women’s basketball, and Ackerman played a key role in that evolution, supporting the first women’s Olympic basketball team as they geared up for the ’96 games. That team turned out to be the launching pad for the WNBA, and in 1997 Ackerman was appointed the founding president.
She served as the first female president of the board of USA Basketball and was also the first female to represent the USA on the International Basketball Federation central board. She became a columnist for espnW, exploring the connection between women and sports, an adjunct professor in the graduate sports management program at Columbia University and a consultant for organizations like the NHL and the NCAA (she advised them about stimulating new growth in women’s basketball).
In 2011, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and last July, she was appointed the commissioner of the Big East Conference, one of 32 athletic conferences in the U.S. competing in Division-1 sports.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ackerman attests that being a woman in a field dominated by men has mostly been a non-issue. “Success is a gender-neutral proposition,” she says. “Whether you’re male or female, you have to be capable, work hard and be a good communicator. The bottom line is that if you do those things well, then your chances of getting ahead are very good.”
Although she feels at home in sports and has great friendships with many of the guys she works with, she does admit to moments of loneliness as one of the only females. “I was at the NBA when I was pregnant with my first child and I didn’t have a network of women to support what I was going through,” she says. “My family and friends were there for me, but at work it was a solitary journey.”
She knew that colleagues questioned the seriousness of her commitment, and whether she’d come back after having the baby. Later, she found it challenging to juggle her career with family life, feeling psychologically torn between the decision of going to the office versus staying at home with her kids when they were sick. On the other hand, she recognizes that being a woman in the macho world of sports has at times given her a professional edge. “It may have helped me get my first job at the NBA because they were trying to diversify the workforce in the late ‘80s,” she explains. “I was a female lawyer with experience working at a big Wall Street firm who happened to play basketball and had good references. They were able to check a lot of boxes with me!”
Marietta Cleveland, Senior Manager – Manufacturing Quality, Chrysler LLC
Born and raised in a family of nine children in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, Marietta Cleveland had an experience at age 16 that helped shape her future career path. On the advice of a high school counselor, she participated in a co-op program with General Motors geared towards students who were strong in math and science (only one other girl from her school partook in the program). During her junior and senior year, she attended classes for four hours a day and then worked for four hours at the GM Tech Center in Warren, MI. There, Cleveland got her first taste of working with engineers and found it a natural fit.
Two years later, she attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and, in the summers, continued working for GM as a paid intern in the Industrial Engineering department. In 1986, she graduated with a B.S. in electrical engineering. Her first job was a skilled trades supervisor at Chrysler’s Belvidere Assembly Plant in Illinois, which manufactures the Dodge Dart. She oversaw electricians, pipefitters and millwrights, who helped to maintain the robots and conveyors in the plant.
“I was drawn to the position because it allowed me to work directly with the workers on the floor and utilize my technical skills at the same time,” Cleveland says. She also happened to be the first woman maintenance manager at Chrysler, and the first African-American manager in her sector. Having just graduated from college, she didn’t have any supervisor skills and was thrust into an environment that required her to manage a group of men — not an easy feat. She faced overt hostility and remembers one man telling her, “This is not a job that you should have. This is a job that a man should have.”
Although she concedes to having gone through her share of tough days, Cleveland never questioned her career path. “I didn’t take it personally; people didn’t know better, and this was the first time they had worked side by side with someone who looked different from them,” she says. “I was an anomaly, and they weren’t sure how to communicate with me.”
Many people in her shoes might have reacted negatively to the antagonistic climate, but Cleveland went the opposite direction. She befriended those who doubted her. “I decided I would go out on the floor and get to know the line workers on a personal level,” she says. “I knew that in order for this to work, they had to feel comfortable in my presence. So I initiated conversations, found out what was important to them and talked to them about their families and interests. We got to know each other and realized that we had more in common than we thought.” In that way, she was able to break down stereotypes, set her employees at ease and develop a foundation of mutual respect and camaraderie.
In fact, Cleveland now says that those difficult first days were one of the best and most valuable experiences of her career. “I know that what I went through helped pave an easier path for other women who came after me,” she says. “Today, when I look around at the facilities that I have run, I see women in leadership roles all the way up the plant, and they are having positive experiences regarding the gender issue.” She feels lucky to have been one of the female trailblazers in manufacturing.
Since first starting out 28 years ago, Cleveland has received a series of promotions, finally reaching her current position as senior manager of manufacturing quality. She has also played a lead role in Chrysler’s pursuit of attracting and hiring other female engineers. When pondering what she owes her tremendous career to, Cleveland calls out her work ethic, embrace of new challenges, team-building skills and — first and foremost — her ability to make her employees feel like they matter. To this day, she continues to truly gets to know the people on her staff, from fellow supervisors down to the line workers.