Creating a Culture of Women’s Empowerment Beyond March

I am a woman, and proud of it. I say that not in a defiant way, but it happens to be a fact of which I am very proud. The challenges and obstacles set before me as a minority woman throughout my life have not discouraged me, but empowered me to be not the just the best woman I can be, but the best person, professionally and personally.
March is Women’s History Month, which is important because it highlights the female leaders today and throughout history who have contributed so much to business and society. But let’s be very clear: this is not about one month of recognition. This is a permanent movement that is not going anywhere, as women still too many times face discrimination and a diminished message simply because of their gender. While the “Me Too” movement, more economic empowerment among women, and leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi certainly help change the tide against these obstacles, there is still a lot of work to be done. But it is not insurmountable, and all women play an integral role.
Through hard work and perseverance, I have been fortunate enough to hold several leadership roles throughout my career. While I embraced these opportunities, they also created uncomfortable situations, as much of this work was within male-dominated cultures. I would not be deterred.
I was one of three minority vice presidents hired at Fannie Mae in 1992, only two of which were women. Out of 100 higher ranking officers in the company, 35 were women. This was a fairly strong number at the time, and Fannie Mae did a very good job focusing on female and minority representation in the executive ranks. Still, in a company whose focus was financial services via technology, men still dominated and despite its efforts, the work day often seemed like a mine field, and I was trying not to get blown up.
My next role truly put me front and center in male-dominated cultures. As president and CEO of the DC Chamber of Commerce, most of my interactions were with men, many in powerful positions. I was at least their equal, and sometimes higher. In fact, I was the first, and still the only female, to lead the DC Chamber, and some men were not as comfortable to see a woman in such a decision-making position.
There were many male constituents and politicians who tried to minimize my value as a leader and my voice as an advocate for the business community. Being a woman should not be a handicap, and sometimes I had to go the extra mile to prove I was worthy of this role. I held my head up proudly and barreled through the obstacles. That included robust fundraising efforts that dug the organization out of debt, increasing membership to more than 2,000, the largest Chamber in the region, among numerous legislative wins that changed the landscape of the District on behalf of our business community and neighborhoods.
Through all the hardships, the tears and days I felt like punching a wall, I was lucky to have the highest form of inspiration a woman could ask for: a husband who was kind, gentle, and supportive no matter how draining the days became or what inappropriate words were thrown my way. Gerald Lang was my biggest fan and the most positive person I have ever known. Gerald’s words of encouragement and the pedestal he put me on allowed me to always dust myself off and get back to work. There were days I felt like quitting the good fight, but there was Gerald always ready to push me out the door and out of my comfort level. He was my teammate and the reason I persevered, conquered my fears and achieved the life I have today.
Each day, I try to model what I have learned throughout this journey, because you never know who is watching you and what impact you will have on their life. We are all in this together, and I encourage all women to serve as a role model to other females looking to make their mark. That support will continue our trajectory of leadership, energy and passion for generations.