Eileen McDonnell, President and CEO, Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company and Member, Vision 2020’s National Advisors
We have reached that time in American life where we must not only recognize, but also act, on the fact that any prejudice, bias or traditional restraint on individual ambition diminishes us all.
For women today, there are many paths to “making history” but we must dream big, believe in that dream, and work hard to make that dream a reality. Throughout time, our brightest stars no doubt shared an ability to imagine themselves at the pinnacle of their life’s passion. Whether it is accepting an Oscar for best actress, running the operations for a soon-to-go public social media giant or going for the Gold at the Olympics, envisioning our future with clarity must be a catalyst for achievement. Of course, there’s a difference between hoping to attain your goals and making certain you do it. That is your responsibility, and yours alone. People who are successful clearly understand this.
Too often, people who dream are characterized as having their heads in the clouds or lacking focus. The truth is that young women in particular have limited their dreams, and as such, need to be encouraged to picture their most ambitious dreams fulfilled as the first step in building a plan for the future.
To get to that place, it is vital that young women not allow someone else to define for them what is attainable. As parents of young girls, it is our duty to restrain our instincts for caution in favor of visions of the widest horizons possible. Why create a ceiling, glass or otherwise, that isn’t in their sights?
My advice to young women is that along the path to true fulfillment, you must first believe in yourself before you ask others to believe in you. You then need to seek mentors, often finding those mentors in places where women have not been before. The great truth, though, is that mentors are there, and they are typically willing to lend a hand to the next generation.
I know that on my own path I was determined to succeed, but to do so would require moving upward through the ranks of what had been almost an exclusively male-dominated business. I benefited from men who didn’t necessarily see me as “female,” but saw me for the talents and abilities that were within me. They believed in me—and because of that, they helped me.
Along the way, like most women, I’ve needed to pause on behalf of goals related to family and responsibilities, and those pauses have strengthened both my perspective and my resolve as they have for millions of women.
It is easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the overarching objective, and it is important to see that ambition delayed or diverted should not allow ambition to be denied. My own career life has never been linear. It has been a life of stepping forward, stepping back and stepping sideways, always keeping an eye on my dream.
As my career was rising, I continued to ask others for their input. While I still work in a male-dominated industry, I did not discriminate among men or women mentors, but instead selected role models based on their abilities. I watched talented individuals to learn what and how they did things. I mirrored their successes and avoided their pitfalls. I was willing to show my vulnerabilities and ask for help when I needed it. I didn’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t know it all! My life —and all our lives— continues to be a work in progress.
So, during this month dedicated to remembering those among our gender who have accomplished so much, how can all of us —women and men— help the next generation of women make their mark?
Start by telling your own story. Share your successes and failures too. Consider what you may teach young women who have an interest in your career. Make it your responsibility to help women see their possibilities, pursue their goals and write the newest chapters in our collective history. It’s time to act!