Fifty years ago, as the women’s liberation movement was gaining momentum in the U.S., my maternal great-grandmother, Pearl, worked in a factory sewing American flags while volunteering with the Girl Scouts and caring for her grandchildren. My paternal grandmother, Greta, also worked in local factories while caring for her family. Both were among the “innovators” who worked both inside and outside their homes. I’m sure neither envisioned that their future granddaughter and great-granddaughter would be a communications professional at a technology company – focusing on artificial intelligence, no less – while also balancing being a mother to a one-year-old daughter of her own.
March marks not only International Women’s Day, but Women’s History Month; and this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the women’s lib movement. In honor of that, I wanted to hear more about the history of some of the remarkable, intelligent and savvy women that I have the good fortune to work with, both on-campus at SAS and off.
Left to right: Claudia Navarro, Cristina Conti, Carla Gentry, Hiwot Tesfaye, Nitika Virmani, Ratneesh Suri, Tess Posner.
Several of my colleagues echoed that their mothers and grandmothers were also among the first in their communities to begin balancing home and professional lives, and these fond remembrances sparked conversations and inspiring examples from the past.
Tess Posner, CEO of AI4ALL, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing diversity and inclusion in AI education, research, development and policy, shared: “In 1970, my grandmother was 41, had worked as a history teacher, and was in the midst of raising five kids. She had become a mother at 22. At one time, she had three children in diapers, one breastfeeding, and would soon get pregnant with the fifth. She was always very politically active and cared a lot about social causes. I see how her passion for education shaped my family and even the career I ended up in, and I also reflect on how much she had to juggle with five young children close in age.”
Claudia Navarro, a customer advisory manager for SAS Mexico, adds: “During the women’s liberation movement, my mother was completely devoted to her family. Even though both my parents were raised in a more stereotyped time concerning male and female roles, they raised us differently and always encouraged us to fulfill our goals. I now recognize their effort to embrace change and the personal sacrifices they made to support my education and give me more opportunities than they had.”
Nitika Virmani, Senior Analytics Consultant for SAS India, offered another global perspective: “This was a difficult time for many in India, too, as a large section of women were deprived of education and human rights. The women in my family were encouraged to study and seek education, however they were limited in terms of expressing their aspirations and make their career choices. I'm glad that with the change in mindset and the education revolution our generation is free to talk and express ourselves.”
Hiwot Tesfaye, a data scientist at SAS headquarters in Cary, shared how the women in her family have inspired her. “Fifty years ago, my grandmothers were living across two different cities in Ethiopia. Their marriages were arranged by their parents at an early age and they had very little, if any, opportunity to pursue an education or their own path in life. My grandmothers gave birth to daughters who would be part of a generation of women in Ethiopia who fought to pursue an education, choose who they wanted to marry, and build their own careers and businesses. I am filled with gratitude for the women who came before me and fought for equal opportunities in life -- and who continue to give me guidance and encouragement to go further than they have.”
Strong, intelligent women leading by example in AI
SAS' Cristina Conti, based in Italy, is one such woman leading by example, having been awarded a coveted CEO Award of Excellence (a SAS award for exemplary employees). As a senior manager on the EMEA presales team for AI and analytics, she knows that surrounding herself with other smart individuals helps make the entire team – and SAS customers – successful. She explains: “Our goal is to help our customers make better business decisions and solving challenging business problems using AI and analytics through thought leadership and practical results.”
Team leadership, and by extension mentorship, was a common theme among these strong, intelligent women. Ratneesh Suri, a senior management consultant from SAS New Zealand, said that her proudest professional accomplishment, outside of her PhD, was “fostering talent and creating first-time leaders. I love helping people thrive and succeed. It's highly rewarding when you're able to inspire someone, help them to see a spark in themselves, open their eyes to opportunities and coach them to ‘go get it’.”
Data scientist Carla Gentry adds that her "stick-to-itiveness" was among the key attributes that helped her become a leader and pioneer in the field. “I was one of five students in my advanced math class, all boys of course, except me... It was a man's field for sure. And it was hard, but I had people who believed in me. So, I kept my spirits high, and even when asked to make coffee, I never let anyone see that it hurt. You had to have thick skin back then for sure.”
Hopes for future generations
As two forward-thinking women of their time, I have no doubt that my grandmother and great-grandmother had big dreams for their female offspring like me. I echo those dreams for my daughter – I hope she has the access and opportunity to do things I can’t yet fathom.
Claudia Navarro summed it up perfectly, saying, “I feel lucky to live in a time that provides better opportunities for women and to be able to pursue my personal and professional goals without needing to choose between them. Professionally speaking, I feel a responsibility to help other women advance in their careers. Personally, I am committed to raise my little boy to be a respectful and emphatic man that will promote equality.”