Every year on 8 March, International Women’s Day is acknowledged and celebrated. It is a day to draw attention to women’s achievements and equally, empower women in the workplace on a global scale.

2021’s theme, #ChooseToChallenge, focuses on choosing to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality – and seek and celebrate women's achievements. 

While there’s still plenty that needs to be done in order to achieve true gender equality in the workplace, women’s voices are getting louder and more powerful. The new generation of female executives, entrepreneurs and leaders show that women can’t – and won’t – wait.

This year for International Women’s Day, we take a look at the strides women have taken over the past year, and keep the momentum going with career advice from leading women on how they got to the top.

RELATED: Why recognising women in leadership and their achievements matter

International Women’s Day, then and now

Since 1911, International Women’s Day (IWD) has been encouraging collective action and shared accountability for gender equality. IWD aims to raise awareness for gender bias in the workplace, celebrate women’s achievements and increase visibility for women — all while calling out inequality.

Over the years, IWD has helped raise awareness and spearhead milestones when it comes to gender diversity culture in the workplace. And these messages aren’t being lost: in the past year alone, massive achievements have been made for women in the fields of leadership, pay equality, workplace diversity definition and women’s rights.

Last year, Kamala Harris became the first woman vice-president-elect of the United States, shattering a glass ceiling that saw the highest levels of American politics reserved for men for many years.

In October 2020, leaders from over 100 countries came together to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for action, the most comprehensive roadmap for advancing gender equality. 

Yet despite all the progress, it’s still challenging for many women to be recognised and make it to the top at work.

According to research from the University of Exeter Business School, women working in male-stereotyped industries were twice as likely to shy away from leadership roles, when compared to male counterparts. And the latest Australian government statistics show that although women account for 47.1% of our national workforce, only 17.1% of all CEO positions are filled by females. What’s more, women only account for 31.5% of key management positions, and less than a third of directors in the ASX 200 are women.

So how can women be heard, be visible and make it to the top of their career?

We explore career advice from trailblazing female executives and share their stories on how they got to where they are today.

Climbing the ladder: Job advice from female CEOs and leaders

Melanie Perkins on staying the course

“One thing that has kept me going is the belief that if I work really hard, I can usually succeed at whatever I put my mind to — maybe not on the first try, but by the hundredth (or more) tries I’ll nail it. Learning this at a young age has been like a magical superpower my whole life, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I try really hard and fail, it just means that I need to try harder and harder, until eventually, I succeed. And then when I succeed I can attribute my success to trying really hard.

“It’s never too late to exercise the power of determination. Figure out something you’d like to succeed at, and then do it. The first thing could be small. Learn to juggle. Learn to speak in public. Learn anything. Work really hard for however long it takes you to succeed at that thing. Determination is like a muscle, the more you flex it, the stronger it gets.”

Anne Wojcicki on continuous learning

“There’s no such thing as a perfect job or a perfect first job. Just do anything where you’re going to learn something new. It’s one of those things I always tell people, even in the company: don’t be afraid to quit. So many people are afraid of change. But if you’re not stimulated, you should do something else — the world is full of lots of interesting jobs. It can be scary at times, but you have to push yourself to take on challenges and do things that are new. Push yourself to keep growing.”

Sara Blakely on finding your competitive advantage

“Many times in my journey, being underestimated made it harder for me to get [people] to take my ideas seriously or to even give me a chance — but it was also a real competitive advantage for me. I continued to really embrace the ‘being underestimated’ as a woman and I’ve been able to stay true to the feminine principles in leadership.”

Oprah Winfrey on facing career challenges head-on

“Your job is not always going to fulfil you. There will be some days that you just might be bored. Other days, you may not feel like going to work at all — go anyway. The number one lesson I can offer you is … to become so skilled, so vigilant, so flat-out fantastic at what you do that your talent cannot be dismissed.”

Angela Duckworth on changing mindsets

“Women are much more conditioned to think: ‘I didn’t do well’. Anger comes from the response that ‘my rights have been violated… Guilt comes from the feeling that you did something wrong. In my experience, women are much more conditioned to think: ‘I didn’t do well on the article’ versus ‘they didn’t do their job when reviewing it.’ I love that women can be empathetic and feel an obligation to take feedback but I also think it's important to be able to take feedback less personally than we sometimes do.”

Ita Buttrose on proving people wrong

“When I sought advancement I was often told I was too young, I was a woman, I was married, I was a mother. I have never thought that gender should be a reason for any woman not striving for the top and making the most of her ability and talents. When I was making my way up the ladder I didn’t spend much time thinking that I was working in a male-dominated industry. I was too busy doing my job. I never thought I wasn’t entitled to aim as high as I could in journalism. When I’d meet the occasional obstacle I’d tell myself there had to be away around it and I would ultimately find it and continue on my way. I’ve always been prepared to put my hand up for a new job or for advancement. You have to let people know you have ambition. They can’t tell that by looking at you. I want to encourage women to push themselves forward more than they do. Believe in yourself and have a go.”

And finally, Arianna Huffington on workplace mental health

No matter how much great advice we share and how much action we take, we know the road to the top isn’t easy. Studies show that women still carry a disproportionate load of dealing with caring and housework, on top of managing their career. And according to Arianna Huffington, one of the biggest challenges facing women in the workplace is the pressure many feel to be 'always on' in order to succeed.

“The way we’re working isn’t working. Too much of the world still believes that burnout is just the price we have to pay for success. But all the recent science shows that when we prioritise our well-being, our productivity actually goes up. [If I could make one change to help women, it would be] to end the macho culture of burnout and ‘being always on,’ in which long hours and overwork are taken as proxies for commitment and dedication. Despite all the stay-at­home dads and the advances in shared parenting, working women are still doing the lion’s share of keeping up the household. This becomes a backdoor way of excluding women — or at least making it harder for them to advance, especially because women internalise stress more.”

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