Powerful women who show how we can rise to the top

Cover art Erka Capili Inciong

Words by

Digital Reporter

“Live your life with normalcy and forget the labels. Prove your detractors wrong.” These decisive words were spoken by Representative Geraldine Roman (Bataan, 1st District), the first openly transgender woman elected into Congress, during the #Unstereotype forum organized by Unilever Philippines last May 25. Lynette Ortiz, the first female Standard Chartered Bank Philippines CEO, and Leena Nair, the first female Unilever Chief Human Resources Officer, were Ms. Roman’s co‑panelists, while ABS‑CBN News Channel anchor Karen Davila served as their moderator.

It was not easy to get where they are today, all three women acknowledged. Gender biases in the work place should not exist, but continues to exist. That is the unfortunate reality that we currently face.

Ms. Ortiz said that her previous experiences working in the cutthroat and male‑dominated New York banking industry, showed her how hard women have to work to get to the same position as men. “There were instances when colleagues had doubts on my value and contribution to the company, because I was a woman—even to the point where I was asked to serve men coffee or leave a meeting. As a woman, I had to do work doubly hard to prove my seat at the table,” she said. To combat the negative stereotypes women face, she said that it was imperative that women have to come to meetings fully‑prepared.

For Ms. Nair, whose successes in the corporate world made her a “first female” in many ways in her home country of India, it became a challenge for her to create an impact in the workplace. “The challenge was in focusing on creating an impact, while also facing the difficulties of being a woman and being young in the company. I also needed to make it easier for others who came after me,” Ms. Nair said. Prior to becoming Unilever HR chief, she was Hindustan Unilever’s youngest executive director in 2007.

Ms. Roman wasn’t originally slated to run for politics in 2016. She had returned to the Philippines in 2012 to take care of her ailing father, leaving her work as a senior editor in the Spanish News Agency. But it was her brother, and not her, who her family was grooming to run as Bataan Representative. “It was a different ordeal for me, not only to fight to become a woman, but to be an elected official and prove that I have my constituents’ interests at heart,” Ms. Roman said. “I may be a part of the LGBT community, and I will continue to advocate in their favor, but I was also chosen by my district. Ultimately, I am also called to serve for the people’s benefit and welfare.”

Ambition and Emotion

Those are two words that have stereotypical gender‑based connotations. An ambitious man is seen as a strong and powerful leader. An ambitious woman, or ambisyosa, is seen as negative, power hungry, undeserving. An emotional man is honest, passionate and driven, an emotional woman is hysterical, irrational, and out of control.

“I have interviewed men and women of different backgrounds and cultures, and what I have observed for women is on our difficulty to express ambition,” said Ms. Nair, adding that women were more likely to share what they could offer the company while men were more open to discussing their ambition of rising to upper echelons of the company. Women tend to use the pronoun “we”, men tend to use “I”, perhaps because of the former’s awareness of the biases that they face.

But women should not shy away from voicing out their ambitions. For Ms. Ortiz, assertiveness is key to her path to becoming a CEO. “I spoke up and I said I wanted to become the bank’s CEO. The board then said I was not entrenched enough in the business or that I lacked the necessary network for the position. I failed on my first attempt, but that didn’t stop me,” she said. She took a regional post as Head of Capital Markets for ASEAN in Singapore. Racking up business experience and building a solid network, she claimed the opportunity to become CEO when she returned to the Philippines.

Women should also not shy away from emotion. For Ms. Roman, being able to express one’s emotions sincerely and assertively is an advantage in the workplace. “This is true for politics, where people can see right through you,” she added.

Ms. Ortiz did not cave to the pressure of acting like a man in a male‑dominated field. “There may be little room for vulnerability, yet I found that what’s more important is being comfortable with myself. If I’m calm and collected, then there is no pressure anymore to act like anyone else,” she shared.

According to Ms. Nair, unbridled emotion is a red flag regardless of gender. It shows that the employee might not have the skill or the professionalism needed for his line of work. “The key is in channeling these different emotions—anxiety, anger, and fear—to show your willingness to learn or the openness to collaborate for everyone to succeed,” said Ms. Nair.


The May 25 forum is a part of Unilever’s #Unstereotype campaign, which they launched last year.

“We understand that by using our influence responsibly, we can contribute to positive cultural change as well as making better connections with people through our advertising. That’s why we’ve asked every one of our brands to challenge itself to move away from unhelpful stereotypical portrayals of gender, especially for women, and to deliver fresh campaigns that are more relevant to today’s consumer,” said Aline Santos, Unilever’s Executive Vice President of Global Marketing in a press statement last year.

Since then the company has become more conscious in its portrayal of gender role in how they advertise the more than 400 brands that it controls—including body care products such as Axe and Dove. Unilever also conducts gender sensitivity workshops for its employees.

“The #Unstereotype workshop is one of Unilever’s many initiatives to change mindsets and shatter perceptions about gender,” said Ms. Nair during the forum. “At Unilever, we have committed ourselves to develop a culture that is inclusive of everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.”

In the Philippines, 49% of the leadership roles in the company is held by women.