Three Female Leaders on Careers, Gender Inequality, and Rising Above

It may come as a surprise, but the people behind your go-to pair of jeans, your holy-grail beauty products, and even the rosé you reach for all summer—all products more often bought by women—are largely male. Across many industries in which women make up the bulk of consumers, from beauty to beverages, men still hold the majority of leadership positions. For instance, women spend four times the amount on clothing than men do, but only 2% of the leadership across boards and executives within fashion companies are women.

And that’s a mistake, as research shows that female leadership can have valuable and quantifiable payoffs. One study, consisting of nearly 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries, discovered a correlation between the number of women in executive positions and a company’s profitability. On top of that, women often are driven by a desire to make an impact and are more likely to prioritize social and environmental responsibility. And it has a ripple effect, too, encouraging other women to pursue lofty goals. So what’s getting in the way? Challenges still abound, from pay disparities to sexual harassment in the workplace. To kick off a discussion this International Women’s Day, we brought together our own founder and CEO, Hillary Peterson, Amy Williams, the CEO of Citizens of Humanity, and Helen Johannessen, sommelier and founder of Helen’s Wines, to chat about the challenges and changes in their fields.

When you entered your respective fields, were you surprised to see so many men at the top considering that women are the dominant consumers in each of your three industries?

Hillary: “When I was growing up, a female leader was the exception. I actually didn't know any. My mom went to business school after she raised all of us and everybody thought that was kind of odd. All my friends’ moms were thinking, ‘Wow, why is your mom going to business school?’ So no, it wasn't surprising. If anything it was the norm.”

Amy: “I had a different situation. As an 18-year-old working at Bloomingdale’s, [I saw firsthand] the first female executive that they had appointed to run one of their largest stores. I didn't see much beyond her, so I didn't know that the other executives in the company were male. She was this dynamic woman who was incredibly smart, really confident, and great with people, and I just thought to myself, "I want to be be just like her and do the kinds of things that she's doing." Later on, when I went into a more corporate environment, I started to notice that actually, the composition of the board at the public company I worked for at the time was primarily male. There were a lot of women directly underneath those roles, but yes, I was surprised to go from my experience of being motivated and seeing this amazing woman to actually understanding, peeling back some of the layers, and seeing how many men were actually in those positions.”

Have there been situations in your careers where you’ve felt passed over or treated unfairly because of your gender?

Helen: “The biggest one was the first restaurant I worked at in L.A, where I was the seller assistant to the beverage director. It's a thousand-bottle wine list and I'm opening all these old wines; it's so cool. And then he quit, so I applied for the job internally. They didn't just not give me the job, [but] they hired someone who had been a server in the restaurant, a male who didn't know half as much as I did about wine. I was 24 and he was 42, and it was just ageist and sexist.”

Hillary: “While I don't feel I was ever passed over, I was definitely put into a box. People would try to tell me what I could and couldn't do, [because I was] young and female. When I started in banking, I was the only woman in the office and they said, ‘You cannot do cold calls. You need to just do the spreadsheets.’ So I said, ‘Okay, fine. I'll do the spreadsheets until 5:00, and then from 5:00 on, can I do cold calls?’ And they said, ‘Sure.’ I brought in the first deal that anybody had brought in in over two years. So I think it's just work hard, achieve your goals, and people can't put you in a box. In the end, that's what helped me.”

Is there any other advice you would give to women entering into a male dominated industry?

Hillary: “It's all about setting your sights on what you want to achieve and making it happen—and not listening to or noticing what they have to say. For example, when I was going up against two guys for a job at Levis, one came in and told me, ‘Wow, I think it's really cool you're applying for this job because it's gonna be great practice for you. And of course, an MBA's required, so you're not gonna get the job.’ [I don’t have an MBA.] So I went home and created a marketing deck, and I marketed myself like I would market the product that I would be ultimately in charge of, and I got the job. So don't notice the noise. Know who you are and what you can accomplish.”

Helen: “Back in the day, people used to think I was the hostess. They were like, ‘There's no way you're the sommelier.’ And I'd be like, ‘Cool, yes, but I am. And you're stuck with me.’ I think you make a choice in your mind about how you internalize that and deal with it so that it's not my personal mission to make everyone understand or put everyone in their place. That's not what my life is about. [It’s about] me rising in my company, and then creating opportunities for other women. That's changing things in a better way than changing someone's opinion.”

How can women be better supporters of one another in the workplace at every level? How can consumers support women in leadership?

Amy: “I think what we can do as women is open ourselves up to make sure we're available to help [be a] model for other women, create access, and be supportive.”

You work in fast-paced environments with demanding careers. What advice would you give to women for preventing burnout, or give to anyone for preventing burnout, which is shown to affect women more than men?

Helen: “I actually think about this a lot. I have a high capacity for work volume and load, and I think it can be detrimental, or I get so obsessed with it that I don't even realize the parts of my life that I'm ignoring, or that I wake up and I'm like, oh, I haven't exercised in two weeks. But I'm so busy and all my clothes fit, so I don't really notice. The big thing I've been thinking about is the whole business concept of work smarter—and what does delegation actually mean? A lot of times it has to do with training. But I think if you like hard work, then it doesn't necessarily oppress you. It oppresses people around you and can intimidate them, so make sure that you keep that for yourself, and you don't put that choice on anyone else. ”

Hillary: “I'm getting a lot better at it. I feel like the two things that I just constantly am thinking about are prioritizing and outsourcing. There's only one of me. I have this probably healthy fear of overloading myself, because I think it's hard on your body. So I'm always trying to figure out, ‘Okay, does this feel good to me, and if it doesn't, then what can I outsource? What can I prioritize over something else?’”

Amy: “I've realized that things outside of work, family and close friends either have meaning or don't. I've edited myself a lot more over the last 15 years than I used to. I used to say yes to a lot of things that, as they got closer, [I thought] do I really want to do that? And now, because I have such a passion for the work I do and obviously for my family, that those things are extremely clear. Then, no joking aside, I literally carry those True Botanical Stress Relief. I have learned that ten minutes of quiet time or thinking is so restorative. Now I've gotten to a point where I just turn off the ringer sometimes. I'm not going to be available for every work person who just has a quick question that might take my mind off actual quality thinking. That's going to be better for work and also more restorative to me.”

Helen: “You have this pressure of ‘I should say yes, because of social media,’ because of all this stuff that it will help. I just have started saying no, and it feels so good. No is so important. Because to have that time to yourself, with your family. It's so precious that if I'm not doing it, then it better be for a good reason.”

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve received?

Hillary: “Interestingly, it was my meditation teacher, so it really wasn't career advice for me. But it’s advice on how to live with the challenges and questions that we come across every day, whether it's with my kids or at work, because so much of what we do here is answer questions and solve problems. Sometimes, I don't know the answer. [The poet] Rilke was so wise, and said, ‘We need to get comfortable with the questions, and then eventually maybe we can live the answers.” So if I don't feel confident about an answer, then I encourage my teams to live with the question until we find an answer that feels as good as it should. So I think I'm just getting a lot more comfortable with uncertainty, when it's required to come to a really great answer.”

Helen: “‘Every day is a new day’ is one of the big foundations of our company. Not everyone can do this, but when you have a really bad day, don't carry it over into the new day. Pick little parts that you can learn from, and then you reset. And it has helped us immensely. It's so freeing, and it really helps you recharge.”

Amy: “One, just be yourself. There are going to be a lot of other people in the room who do things better than you or are different than you. If you're clear on what it is that you bring to the table, focus on that. Then, with what you know today, do you still want to make the same decision in terms of business decisions? If you've spent $50,000 [on something] but it seems like it's not going in the direction that you want, just cut it off. Continuously assess and then learn how to communicate to a team of people. That doesn't mean the past was wrong, or that what led you to say yes up until that point means that you're being frenetic and changing your mind.”