Fearlessness as an Act of Defiance (the Eagle/Mouse poster)

Fearlessness as an Act of Defiance (the Eagle/Mouse poster)

by Deb Yamanaka

Recently one of our employees who is relatively early in her career slipped into my office for an end of day chat before heading home.

My open-door policy is essentially this: if my door is open, you are welcome to pop in and chat with me about whatever is on your mind. If there are limits on my end, I’ll let you know. I probably ought to put a few more limits in place at the end of the day.

So, I smiled at her and invited her to sit down.

Visits like this have me running a quick list through my head:

Are they here because there is an issue they need to bring to my attention?

Are they just wanting to check in and connect?

Is it something else?

Unscheduled visits, while completely fine, are rarely without purpose when they happen at the end of the day. I’m mindful of this. And I’m mindful that while my “What’s on your mind?” is intended to open up the conversation, I’m still going to need to hear the hidden parts of the words.

We chatted lightly for a bit before she burst out with, “I mean, my boss is FEARLESS! She swims with sharks!”

Yes, I have been swimming with sharks. And it was one of the most majestic and peaceful experiences in my life. When I was a teen, my father bought me a poster which I proudly hung on my wall. He said he’d seen it and thought of me. It looked a bit like this:

My mother said, “You will NOT hang that on your wall!”

I did it anyway.

While I was away at school, she took it down.

What I took away from that experience though was the important lesson. What my father saw was that his teenage daughter would stand defiant in the face of almost certain loss. My mother saw a poster she thought was obscene and not fitting for the young, well behaved, and carefully molded woman she expected her daughter to become.

I saw courage. And hope. And that my father thought I was fearless. Because isn’t defiance in the face of almost certain death a form of fearlessness?

At that time, only two companies on the Fortune 500 list were headed by women: Katherine Graham of the Washington Post and Marion O. Sandler with Golden West Financial Company. Women were fighting for equal pay and equal opportunity. But women were still expected to find a husband, have children, take care of a house, obey the church, support their husband’s career, and behave with grace and charm. All those things were generally considered more important than their own careers. Even companies like Avon and Mary Kay were built around the flexibility needed for homemaking.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of it – if that is what the woman wants. Or, for that matter, a man. Or…because gender really shouldn’t be part of the decision at all – ANYONE wants. (Full disclosure, my former husband was a stay-at-home dad for our children, and he was awesome at it.)

When any woman sits with me and wants to talk about the path in front of them, I remember the boss I had who, on my first day at the job, looked at me and said, “You seem like a very nice young woman. Why aren’t you in college looking for a husband?”

I had no idea what the next 40 years would unveil or what direction my path would take, but I did know that I wasn’t a fit for that boss’s world. The job was an amazing launching pad though for what would happen next.

Sometimes choosing to defy expectations is the most authentic and fearless thing a person can do. It doesn’t mean I am fearless. But I’m not going to let fear get in the way of doing something that I want to do.

There were 52 female CEO’s on the 2023 Fortune 500 list. They comprise 10.4% of the total list and 25% of them are on the list for the first time. That’s a definite improvement but we still have a long way to go. We are, after all, 50% of the population.

So, thanks Dad. Whether or not that is the message you intended to send, this CEO is going to keep defying the odds AND she’s going to encourage the women around her to keep doing the same.