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#WHM2024, Part 2: Nothing Short of Fearless

March 22, 2024, Sharon Harvey

Our Women’s History Month series continues with powerful, inspiring words from the dynamic President & CEO of Cleveland APL.

I’ve been an animal welfare leader for almost 21 years. Although women have long held a majority in our field, that hasn’t always been true at the leadership level. The imbalance has lessened, thanks to the dedication and hard work of the talented and determined women who paved the way back in the day and more recent generational changes in attitude. Today in our field, I believe women have an equal chance at leadership and being respected as a leader, as long as we earn it.

My journey as a female leader has been winding and, like that of many women, laced with challenges, but largely a sign of the times. When I was in high school, examples of women who were recognized and respected as leaders in their “everyday” careers were sparse. Title IX only just passed; women couldn’t have a credit card without a male cosigner; women could still be fired from their job for getting pregnant, and it was legal to sexually harass women in the workplace. The path, in general, was difficult. For those who wanted to lead, it was fraught with barriers. But opportunities for women to venture into previously male-only professions and leadership roles were on the rise.  

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed Public Law 94-106, permitting women to be admitted to the U.S. military academies. We still couldn’t fight on the front lines, serve on war ships, or fly fighter jets, but we were granted the right to attend the academies and graduate as commissioned officers. Thanks to a progressively minded male teacher who believed in my leadership potential; I was strongly encouraged to apply. I did, was accepted to three academies, and my journey as a female leader began at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Our class was comprised of 283 men and 44 women. I reported in on the first day of Swab Summer full of pride, determination, and ambition … and extreme naïveté.

Over the course of the next two years, I was taught hard lessons about the difference between being admitted and being accepted and truly integrated. In the academy system, 4th class cadets (freshman) are trained by 2nd class cadets (juniors), also known as cadre. Our cadre proudly belonged to the last all-male class at the academy and dubbed themselves Last Class with Balls. They went so far as to inscribe LCWB inside their class rings. Female cadets had to prove ourselves in ways our male counterparts did not – simply because of our gender. Although I was excelling from a military standpoint (go figure), the daily frustration, humiliation, and resentment grew to a level that was making it difficult to maintain a modicum of self-respect. After two years, I left feeling defeated and very angry … and yet, deeply proud. Of the original 44 women admitted, 12 women found a way to endure, to survive, and graduated with commissions as officers. To this day, they have my undying respect and admiration, and several remain among my closest of friends.

So, with that backstory in mind, what would have or could have improved my career trajectory as a female leader? The obvious response is being accepted as a leader on my own merit regardless of gender and not have to prove anything more than was expected of my male peers. The constant hammering that we did not belong there and didn’t deserve to be there, rather than recognized equally for our individual accomplishments, etched in me a tendency to be content with flying below the radar and accepting the fact that I must work harder to achieve the same, rather than commanding what I’m worth and deserve. But I also learned how to fight for progress, to trust my instincts, to recognize that the definition of success will constantly change, and that leading by example is not optional. The negative and positive of that experience shaped the leader I am today … for better or worse. So rather than rehashing what could have been different, we need to celebrate the victories and recognize that a leader doesn’t become a leader and get results without bruises … figuratively, and sometimes literally. Being a leader can be lonely, but being a leader is a calling and an honor. 

It is said that, as women, we struggle with self-promotion and tend to downplay our accomplishments, in turn limiting our own potential. I’m guilty. Up-and-coming women leaders need to be nothing short of fearless and fierce. To be nothing short of vocal advocates for themselves and their value. But not only as a woman. We are leaders. Period. We start as equals and then, based on our own talent, accomplishments, and bearing, we can and will earn respect as superior leaders. But there’s a caveat.

As women, we must listen to our inner voice and recognize and embrace the fact that we have unique qualities that will influence our leadership style. We must dare to carve our own path. By doing so, we might find that we’re leading differently than our male counterparts. But no less effectively.

Today, unlike back in my old high school days, there are many examples of accomplished, amazing and strong women who have excelled as leaders in our field and beyond. Some of them are you. Thank you for inspiring our next generation of leaders, regardless of their gender.

More #WHM2024

#WHM2024, Part I: Plenty of Light to Go Around

About Sharon Harvey
Since 2007, Sharon Harvey has served as the President and CEO of Cleveland Animal Protective League. She and her team have earned recognition for the APL’s innovative and progressive programs and as thought leaders. Sharon is frequently invited to speak at industry conferences and to participate in strategic conversations about the future direction of animal welfare. She serves on the boards of directors of the Ohio Animal Welfare Federation and Shelter Animals Count, and has previously been a board member of The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement and National Federation of Humane Societies.
  1. Thank you for sharing this at a time when I was feeling a lot of self doubt about my own leadership abilities. It was inspiring, uplifting and well written. Thank you.

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