Skip to main content

Empowering Women in Business: Insights from the Leadership in Action Series Panel

By Anais Arrigo

April 1, 2024

Anais Arrigo

On March 19th, I had the opportunity to attend the “Leadership in Action Series: Women in Business Panel” co-sponsored by Graduate Women in Business and the Diversity in Business Club, hosted by the Wisconsin School of Business. The panel was composed of four amazing women who come from a variety of backgrounds: Tania Ibarra (CPA – CEO of Step up), Valeah Foy (WI Department of Revenue & Certified Professional Career Coach), Opal Tomashevska (Director, Multicultural Business Strategy at TruStage), and Nikki Hageman (Industrial Design Manager at Trek Bikes and Co-Founder of BocceRoll and Don’t Cook for Cowboys). During the session, the panelists shared their career paths, along with the inequities they have come across in their careers. They provided us with tips and tools for leading in today’s business environment, and gave advice on achieving success and empowering the women around you.

Throughout the session, the panelists discussed how in their leadership roles, they have overcome gender-based difficulties experienced in their workplace and career journeys. For example, Tania talked about the existence of a disparity of resources between genders and the struggles women face for recognition, respect, and trust. Women often have less access to resources or support compared to their male counterparts. This inequity forces women to navigate challenges by finding alternative solutions and working twice as hard to accomplish their goals. As Tania said, “Women had to do a lot more work to earn and prove [themselves] to be trusted to lead in that space.” Also, women experience more gender bias when there is only one female in charge of a team where the majority are males. This leads to greater challenges such as having to repeatedly assert authority.

Also, Nikki shared her experience as an industrial designer where she was one of the only women in a team of fifty. She explained that there was a clear existence of gender bias in the design industry. When she started her journey, people pushed her towards research and discouraged her from finding better opportunities in design because they said that women don’t typically make good industrial designers. Nikki spent a few years trying to focus more on design before finally realizing her innate love of research and how good she was at it. It was this strong research ability that ended up encouraging her to lead a design change of bikes marketed towards women. She recognized that there was not enough data on what bike designs women were interested in and that Trek may have been limiting their appeal by having a small number of stereotypically designed bikes for women (black and pink, and white and blue colored). She brought this insight to the top of the organization and was able to convince the team of the importance in changing, and expanding, the options women had in choosing bikes. This allowed Nikki to gain the trust and respect of her peers and specifically the trust of the design team.

Another important aspect of the session that resonated with me was the way the panel described how women should empower themselves and those around them. For instance, Valeah shared that in her leadership experience it is imperative to not allow someone else’s perception or comments impact how you feel about yourself and the goals you have. A good leader should empower other women by giving them credit for their hard work, include them in meetings where they can share their perspective and be recognized publicly, and encourage them to be strong and confident. Opal expanded on empowering women by saying it’s important to break the mold and give women the chance to lead in positions or industries that are traditionally male dominated. She explained that women bring unique perspectives to the table and the benefit this diversity of thought can bring in the world of business.

To conclude the conference, the panelists shared the following valuable recommendations for our future roles in business:

(i) Do not spend time trying to fit in. Standing out and being different is the key to getting more opportunities.

(ii) Every woman in the workforce should negotiate her salary, do not settle for the first offer.

(iii) Every person has different experiences and perspectives, so use your voice to add value.

(iv) A leader should stay curious and continuously question things.

(v) It is important to have a plan – a career path envisioned, and a development plan set up to achieve it.

Finally, (vi) before moving to the next role, it is important to excel in your current role.