8 Trail-Blazing Women Leaders to Inspire Your Career

The current workforce has dealt women setback after setback during the pandemic. A report by McKinsey found that women experienced more exhaustion, burn out, and pressure than men in the workplace, and it’s no wonder that they also found that one in four women are considering leaving the workforce.

Many women who lost their jobs to COVID are now looking to re-enter the workforce as pandemic restrictions loosen. It’s important that women are empowered to return to the workforce and forge their own paths toward success and leadership. If you’re a woman looking for motivation to restart your career or climb the corporate ladder, check out this list of eight women leaders who blazed trails in their respective industries. 

1. Julie Sweet

Taking the number one spot on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business, Accenture CEO Julie Sweet is blazing trails as a prominent business leader. With a bachelor’s degree from Claremont McKenna College and JD from Columbia Law, Sweet is breaking barriers in the C-suite with her unconventional background. Her background as a lawyer gives her an edge in business, helping her put clients first, make sense of vast amounts of information, and act with integrity. 

Sweet is no stranger to breaking gender barriers. After seven years as a senior lawyer, she became the ninth female partner at law firm Cravath, Swaine and Moore. She acknowledges that being a woman in corporate America is a difficult road to travel on and has since prioritized diversity and transparency in order to build trust and accountability as a leader. Inspired by Julie Sweet and eager to promote diversity and inclusion as a workplace leader? Check out her quote below to help you get started.

“Treat inclusion and diversity like every other business priority, which means you set goals, you measure, you have data, you have accountable executives, and you have an execution plan.”

Julie Sweet

2. Helen Hanna Casey

Although women in real estate make up 67% of the industry, leadership across the board has yet to accurately reflect that statistic. One powerful woman in the industry is Helen Hanna Casey, CEO of Howard Hanna Services. Named the most powerful woman in real estate and one of Women’s Business Magazine’s Top 200 Women in Business (among numerous awards), Casey demonstrates that female leadership can take a real estate company to new heights. 

Casey serves as a powerful role model for all women leaders aspiring toward the C-suite and is also a prominent leader at industry events. Check out her quote below for inspiration on how focusing on the success of your employees will bring your company growth. 

“One of your goals has to be that you want your company and employees to expand and grow. […] You have to look at the talents of your people and decide how they can help expand the business.”

Helen Hanna Casey 

3. Shan-Lyn Ma 

Shan-Lyn Ma is disrupting the wedding industry with her company, Zola, which is on the fast-track to becoming a unicorn (a privately-held startup that’s valued at over $1 billion). Founded in 2013, Ma used her previous experience as a product manager to revitalize the online wedding industry and provide a better experience that customers love. As someone who started her entrepreneurial journey after years of work experience, she’s showing other women that it’s never too late to switch up your career. If you have a great idea that solves a problem, hard work can lead you to success. 

It can be hard being a woman in business, so Ma recommends leaning on a network of other female founders or professionals for advice. If you’re working on building your own network, take some of inspiration from her below on how it’s possible to do it all. 

“I think every founder has to be a motivational leader in order to build a great team and business. I do feel an extra responsibility to show it’s possible to be a woman, be a respected leader, and run a fast-growing startup.”

Shan-Lyn Ma

4. Cynthia Marshall

Cynthia Marshall is a strong woman leader who is changing the standards for diversity and inclusion in the male-dominated world of the NBA. As the first Black woman to be CEO of the Dallas Mavericks, Marshall has worked hard to develop a company culture where anyone at any level of the business can speak their mind. She accomplished this by having a personal one-on-one meeting with everyone in the Mavericks organization when she started. From there, she’s made sure that everyone has a voice and that all cultures feel welcome in her organization. 

As a woman, we’re often faced with pressure to conform to certain standards of what a leader is, but those standards are so often biased. Remember that being a true leader is leading as yourself and bringing your authentic personality and work to the table everyday. If you are ever told to change who you are, let the following quote remind you that your identity is important. 

“When you fundamentally try to change who I am, when you tell me I can’t say blessed, when you tell me I’m too loud, you’re actually telling me you don’t want me to be a Black woman.”

Cynthia Marshall

5. Rosalind Brewer

With decades of experience in C-level positions across major companies like Starbucks, and Sam’s Club, Rosalind Brewer became one of the first Black female CEOs of a Fortune 500 company in 2021. Currently, she is #27 on Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business. Despite her vast experience and status as such a prominent figure in business, Brewer still faces the effects of bias and prejudice in the industry. She’s reflected on how her identity as a Black woman has caused others to underestimate her place in the C-suite and mistake her for someone of a lower position. 

If you’ve ever experienced judgement and prejudice in the workplace, emulate Rosalind Brewer’s strength and keep her quote in mind when you need the courage to push back and demand the respect you deserve in the workplace.

“You can and should set your own limits and clearly articulate them. This takes courage, but it is also liberating and empowering, and often earns you new respect.”

Rosalind Brewer 

6. Melanie Perkins

Melanie Perkins is the CEO of tech unicorn, Canva, and is serving as inspiration for young female entrepreneurs across the globe. Recently, Canva’s valuation was set at $15 billion, making her and her co-founder husband billionaires off an idea they cooked up at university. Aiming to challenge design and tech giants in the industry, Canva is a graphic design platform that allows you to create things without the steep learning curve of programs like Adobe. 

However, the Australian native had a rough time getting her company started up. Being far from the network of tech connections and funds that is Silicon Valley, Perkins had to take up kite-surfing just to get her foot in the door with investors at a kite-surfing competition in Australia. She was successful at securing funding and the rest is history. Without her vision and drive, Canva wouldn’t be around to make graphic design more accessible to all. For inspiration on being a visionary and a leader in your industry, follow Melanie’s advice below.

“As a leader, I feel my job is to set the vision and the goals for the company, and then to work with everyone to empower them to dream big and crazy.”

— Melanie Perkins

7. Mari Elka Pangestu

As World Bank Managing Director of Development Policy and Partnerships, Mari currently leads the research and data group at the World Bank using her expertise in policy and management. However, she is well-known for previously serving as Minister of Trade for seven years and Minister of Tourism for 3 years in Indonesia. As Minister of Trade, she put a special focus on growing Indonesia’s economy and finding ways for women entrepreneurs to have better access to trade.

With a doctorate in economics, Mari has also led as an expert on global policy regarding food research, geopolitics, sustainable developments, and renewable energy. Although the international trade field is mainly dominated by men, Mari’s life and career show us that with hard work and dedication, your expertise and experience will be rewarded with high levels of leadership. If you’re interested in a job as a woman in trade, check out Pangestu’s quote on how tourism benefits women. 

“Tourism is a very serious industry: it creates one out of 11 jobs, and benefits women and local communities, in particular.”

Dr. Mari Elka Pangestu

8. Kathrin Jansen 

Senior Vice President and Head of Research and Development at Pfizer, Katherin Jansen has played a major part in Pfizer’s global success. With 28 years of experience leading vaccine development, Jansen recently led a 650-person team to pioneer one of the first COVID-19 vaccines. 

Although the race to a vaccine was one fraught with urgency, Jansen showed true and effective leadership by not sacrificing quality for speed. Jansen believes the science behind her vaccine speaks for itself and that should inspire confidence from the people. With a woman at the helm of such a leading scientific accomplishment, Jansen is a role model for other women in science. See her quote below for how women in STEM can help each other succeed. 

“For me it was important to support female colleagues and make sure they have the opportunities, and you know, just look out for them.” 

Dr. Katherin Jansen

All women in the workplace should be empowered to advocate for their own career growth, but we can’t do it alone. Take inspiration from these examples of successful women leaders and motivate yourself to achieve just as much or more. Whether you’re interested in tech, business, real estate, sports, science, or trade, there’s a female leader out there who’s blazed a trail for you to succeed after them.

Ready to take your leadership to the next level? Try a leadership workshop or coaching to grow your skills and reach your career goals.

Executive Presence for Women Leaders in 2021

Exuding Executive Presence adds a layer of challenges and opportunities for women to excel in the workplace. Diane Craig, President & Founder, Corporate Class Inc., shares her observations.

We are slowly and steadily overcoming the various challenges resulting from the pandemic. We have more lessons to learn as workplaces worldwide are moving towards a hybrid model of work-from-home and from working in the office, which requires current and aspiring leaders to step up and up-skill to lead teams.

Women, in general, tend to take on more responsibilities in raising children and ensuring their households run as efficiently as their offices do.

But, how does one exude Executive Presence, 24/7, with no breaks and no clear distinction in their work and home spaces?

Expert coach, Diane Craig, answers key questions to help address this challenge in 2021.

What defines Executive Presence now as we move towards a hybrid model of work cultures?

Executive Presence always has and will always come down to how you show up in any situation and how you present yourself.

Your presence and engagement during a conversation in the office might be somewhat different from how you show up on an online platform, however, the basic guidelines remain the same.

When you enter your office or a boardroom for a meeting, others immediately develop a first impression of how you are doing today — if you look happy or weighed down, if you will be able to contribute to a conversation effectively, etc. This first impression sets the tone for the rest of the engagement.

Energy flows where intention goes, and those around you pick up on where your energy is flowing at the moment.

Executive Presence is really about the ability to connect authentically and to inspire and motivate those around you.

We say that inspiring is the pull, motivating is the push.

So, if I want to pull my team in and engage them, I, as a leader, need to show up authentically.

For some, let’s say you are an introvert, at times, you will have to stretch yourself, and express yourself more passionately than you normally would to show you are excited about what you are talking about. This may not be your preferred communication style, but that’s what it will take for your message to be as impactful as you want it to be.

As we start to move fluidly between working from home and the office, there are more demands on most women, many of whom are within the sandwich generation. How do we manage that?

First, it needs to be understood and communicated within the family. A friend of mine said while her children were role-playing, her five-year-old told his playmate, “Can’t you see I am on a Zoom call?” while pretending to work on a laptop. We were both taken aback because we would have never thought of saying things like that when we were five. This just speaks to how our children pick up on the behaviours around them and also have developed their understanding of our challenges.

The second most important step to exuding executive presence, after showing the best version of your authentic self, is to be present in the moment. We need to navigate these situations using solutions like sticky notes on the door indicating your office is off-limits right now, scheduling meetings around your children’s schedule if required, and communicating your needs to your partner and team. Of course, it isn’t going to be perfect, and it takes a lot of practice, however, it lays the foundation for your success.

A good leader needs to adapt to unforeseen challenges to engage and motivate those around them under any circumstance. You have to be that role model.

How does developing Executive Presence differ for women?

Over the last 30 years, I have coached, worked with, and mentored many women. Two things I hear most often are:

  1. they doubt themselves a lot more than their male counterparts and
  2. their passion often gets equated with “being emotional.”

Both result from systemic practices and stereotypes that are believed to be true and are not backed by evidence.

The first factor results from the old style of leadership where command and control ruled the boardroom.

We think of men as confident and women as capable in our teams, and that needs to change.

As a woman, if you are invited to speak about something in a meeting or conference, it’s because you are an expert in the field and you should own it. It’s the same with applying for jobs. The lack of confidence keeps most women from getting through doors, not for lack of experience, expertise, or abilities, more often it is just about confidence and interrupting that self-doubt.

That’s why I love organizations such as The White Ribbon, whose mandate is to enable men to help develop women’s voices. It’s important for women to have male mentors and champions who help them overcome their fears and self-doubt, which are often baseless.

If women are passionate about an idea or a project, they are often perceived as emotional especially in non-inclusive workplaces.

In developing your Executive Presence as a woman, be true to yourself and remain authentic. This requires you to be assertive. Asserting oneself means respecting yourself by speaking up your mind, respecting others by acknowledging their point of view and, without expectation of them necessarily agreeing with you.

This is different from aggression, which disrespects others; and from passivity, which disrespects yourself. If you are passive-aggressive, you disrespect both yourself and those around you.  The benefit of developing an Executive Presence is that you show up like you belong.

Any tips on developing executive presence for women leaders?

Truly believe in your abilities and experiences. Do not invalidate yourself or diminish your power.

In order to be anointed as a leader, you first have to be perceived as one.

If you don’t believe you have that presence when you’re in a meeting, when you’re presenting, when you’re interacting with others, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to be influenced or persuaded by you.

They’re still going to doubt that you’re that leader that I want to work with, that I want to listen to, that I want to role model and that I want to learn from.

The secret of executive presence for women, in many ways, is the same as it is for men…

  • It is displaying your authenticity, your motivations and inspirations, and living them.
  • It involves speaking the truth with assertiveness and not aggressiveness.
  • It involves showing up at your authentic best, being present in the moment, and communicating challenges to your immediate loved ones and your teams to overcome challenges to be the best versions of ourselves.

Are you a woman leader ready to build your executive presence?

At Corporate Class, our expert facilitators provide in-person and live online leadership and executive presence training for women. Learn more about our Individual Training programs or get in touch with us to host a customized Business Workshop.

You can also master your Executive Presence skills with CCI’s Online Self-Paced Leadership Presence System!
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