Above the Glass Ceiling: A Conversation with Two VelocityEHS Leaders
Posted on March 22, 2022
In honor of Women’s Herstory Month, I met with two VelocityEHS leaders, Winnie Ip, Chief Operating Officer, and Rachel Kaiser, Vice President of Human Resources, to discuss their experiences as women in the professional world, and at the executive level.
First off, let me break down the title of this piece, Above the Glass Ceiling. The concept of the Glass Ceiling was first coined by Marilyn Loden at the 1978 Women’s Exposition and refers to the social barrier that prevents women from being promoted to top jobs in management. It’s a glass ceiling because we can see through it, climb the professional ladder up to it, even tap on it, but there’s a challenge in getting to the other side. The term has broadened over time to include other historically excluded groups as well, since they have faced the same challenge of being judged and kept at arms’ length.
For women, these challenges have revolved around life experiences such as childbearing and being the de facto home/life manager, which may take them away from or compete with work. Another issue is the simple, biological fact that we have periods and have to manage this physical challenge each month, even while in the workplace. Company management has often perceived these issues as hindrances to a woman’s professional success, and the success she can contribute to an organization. Women of color face these difficulties and then some, because they’re women and people of color – a prime example of intersectionality. And, thanks to all these judgements weighing on our lives and circling us in the office, many women experience impostor syndrome, a lack of confidence in their abilities to fulfill their professional role.
I wanted to ask Ip and Kaiser about their experiences on the other side of the glass ceiling, having “broken” it, so to speak. In these inspiring and honest conversations (which have been edited and condensed for readership), they shared with me how they got to where they are today, what empowered them in their careers, and what they think needs to change in business culture to make it truly equitable for everyone.
Could you give a brief rundown of your career and what led you to your current position?
Winnie Ip: “I’ve been here for 20 years now, and I started out as an intern. I have literally done every job there is to do, from all the way back to my intern days at Humantech (now VelocityEHS Ergonomics®). I started at Humantech right out of school, as a consultant and trainer. Back then, the ergonomics group was a small team, probably only 30-35 employees. And I think as a consultant at a small company, you really start to branch out into areas that you never would have normally.
“From being a consultant and trainer, I then moved into managing large projects and then to sales—I think that was the key for me, that I never turned down opportunities when they were presented, even if they were out of my comfort zone. It gave me a broad foundation of knowledge and appreciation of all the different aspects of our business, and I had so many mentors along the way and different experiences that added up to who I am now.”
Rachel Kaiser: “I’ve always enjoyed communication and understanding people. I studied communications in college, with minors and focuses in sociology and psychology, but I didn’t know how I could turn that into a profession. I started my career in Customer Care before eventually moving to Human Resources, where my interests and passion for people could thrive. I started at VelocityEHS (then MSDSonline) as an HR Generalist, supporting the company and employees in all things, from recruiting, onboarding, employee relations, benefits, and everything in-between. I originally worked under a previous female VP of HR, and I learned so much from her. She was a very strong leader, and she left the organization in my hands. She prepared me for what needed to be done, and as the company grew and evolved, I realized that I wanted to be the person who helped build the HR team to support our company and employees.
“But it’s not like someone stopped and asked, ‘Hey, do you want to be VP of HR?’ As I moved upward in my career, I just started preparing for the role of VP, reading a ton, taking as many courses as I could, and eventually getting certifications. As I did these things, I had the full support of my bosses (who were all men, by the way), and many people believing in my ability to manage at this level.”
Do you feel that you’ve encountered any challenges in your career because you’re a woman?
Winnie Ip: “I’ll start by saying that as a consultant, I was thrust into a lot of different environments, primarily manufacturing environments, which are very male-dominant—from steel yards to shipyards. I’ve traveled overseas, and, in some countries, they don’t have female factory employees. So, although I’ve never experienced challenges in Humantech or VelocityEHS being a woman, I have encountered them in these outside experiences.
“But I never let those difficult situations faze me. Their first thoughts may have been, ‘Who is this woman standing up here? Why is she even here?’, but once I started talking and shared the valuable expertise I was there to impart, there was an immediate shift in their impression of me. I made it my goal to find the toughest-looking person in the room, sitting in the back with their arms crossed, and win them over. And once I got that guy on my side, it was easier to win over the rest of the group.”
Rachel Kaiser: “I will say that I think I’ve probably had fewer negative experiences as a woman in the workplace, and part of that is because I’ve been with VelocityEHS for so long. I haven’t had notable negative experiences here, but I have in previous jobs, and it was difficult.
“HR is often a woman-led group, and I am a people-pleaser, so I was shoehorned into doing administrative tasks that had nothing to do with my role, because I was the only woman in the room. Why was it automatically my responsibility to order lunch for everyone, or be the designated note-taker? A boss in one of my previous jobs thought it would be a great idea to give everyone nicknames, and mine was ‘Office Mom,’ which was just disheartening. Things like this just further pushed the idea that I was seen first as a woman in the role and in the office, not just another professional.
“It’s in my nature to help people and solve problems, so I had to work on establishing boundaries for myself and what I did in my position. One of my mentors was a woman who was a no-nonsense CFO. She commanded the room, led dialogue, and I realized that no one was asking her to order lunch or anything like that. It pushed me to take ownership of how I had been presenting myself and what I could do differently. I then took ownership of my power and my right to say ‘No, that’s not part of my responsibilities in this role,’ or ‘It’s not appropriate for you to call me by that nickname.’”
What do you think can be done or changed in business culture to elevate more women to the executive level?
Winnie Ip: “I think that a lot of things are already changing. Especially as our company and those we serve pivot to ESG, more light will naturally be brought to this aspect of business. My first thought in answering this question was that we need more mentorship for female employees to help them grow. I’ve been mentored and have mentored others throughout my career, and it’s helped me immensely.
“But, mentorship can only take you so far. When it comes to hiring and promotions, it’s about having the patience and putting in the effort to explore diverse candidates. I think, often, the pressure of the business takes over to rush to find someone for a role, but the priority should be on practicing what we preach, focusing on DEI in ESG and holding people accountable for making these changes.”
Rachel Kaiser: “For sure, more active sponsorship and mentorship, and by recognizing and showcasing women leaders within any organization. We’ve been working to do that with our succession planning, to ensure that we have a plan and a culture that uplifts and supports our employees as they develop their careers and climb upward. We want female colleagues, colleagues of color, everyone to know that we have a place for them.
“But I also think that normalizing life experiences that have been traditionally focused on women, like maternity leave and childcare, will create more equity, especially as the conversation shifts to include men in those responsibilities. Those aren’t just the female experience, they’re part of the human experience; it’s about inclusion for everyone, at all levels. And in other countries, these experiences are already being made equitable, like with parental leave. Although the U.S. doesn’t offer governmental paid parental leave, VelocityEHS has a parental leave policy which is available for all parents – mothers, fathers, non-birth parents, birthing mothers–because everyone needs that time after bringing a child into the world or their lives. Additionally, we’ve also implemented the Work-for-All program, which allows employees to better juggle their work and home lives.”
At what point do you feel that the focus on women in the workplace is drawing more attention to the fact that we’ve had challenges and have been kept separate for a long time?
Winnie Ip: “I’ve struggled with this one a lot. I’ve never felt a pull to join or participate in female-focused or female-only groups, because I don’t want to be called out in that way. I support those who do participate, and I appreciate that groups and opportunities like that are available, but I feel like that actually takes away from who I am. I’m an executive; I’m not a female executive. This is an internal battle I’ve been having for a long time—I’ll convince myself one way and then switch back, and then back to the other again.
“I feel like I should be more active in those things and make myself more visible, but I keep coming back to the fact that I personally don’t get value out of having the distinction of being a female professional. If we’re all equal, I don’t need a special group to call me out as such. I’m a leader, not a female leader and not a female minority leader. I hope that over time, with all this focused attention on DEI, people’s mindsets can be changed to where those differences don’t matter. Why can’t we all just be seen as badass executives?”
Rachel Kaiser: “Like a lot of women, I think, I struggle with how, or how much to participate in female-focused events and opportunities. I see a lot of value in women-centered groups, how they lift up womens’ voices and give validation to the struggles that women face in the world, especially as a professional and a leader; how they provide support and community to women to overcome those struggles and navigate the professional landscape. I see the impact that the participation and mentorship from these groups can have on female professionals and leaders.
“Earlier in my career, I didn’t want to view myself or have my peers define me as a female leader. But as I’ve gotten older and have experienced and learned much more, I’ve realized that I can take that part of how I might be defined by my gender and use it as an empowering thing. I can use my position and influence to create further equity and level the playing field, giving everyone the space to excel.”
What advice would you give to women who aspire to be at the top level of business someday? What do they need to succeed?
Winnie Ip: “I would say first that growth is not just upwards, it’s lateral as well. So, don’t get caught up in the idea of just climbing the ladder and gaining titles; there’s so much value in learning across a company as well as upward. I think because of all the different opportunities I jumped on in my career, and now, as Chief Operating Officer, I understand how our business really operates.
“I would also tell people to learn from everyone you can, and never stop. Going back to my comment about mentors, it’s not just about having a professional mentor. Learning life skills and experiences from other people can naturally help you build your professional skills and better understand others, which ultimately makes you successful as a leader.”
Rachel Kaiser: “Just go for it. Don’t wait for someone to ask you if you want to do something. Take chances and take advantage of the opportunities presented to you. Find out what you need to get to the next level and start doing it, prepare yourself for that position. Surround yourself with people who will lift you up, but give you honest feedback. Realize that allies can come in different forms; as I was moving upward in my career, I had other female leaders to look up to, while at the time, all my bosses were men and they supported me wholeheartedly.
“And, don’t let yourself fall into impostor syndrome; there’s a difference between being humble and selling yourself short.”