March 8 marks International Women’s Day, a day set aside each year to acknowledge the many achievements and challenges women around the world experience in their daily lives. It’s both a celebration and a sobering reminder that equity and opportunity are still beyond the reach of many women.
The event’s 2022 theme, Break the Bias, highlights the importance of women in a world that is equitable, diverse, and inclusive.
Toastmasters International began to break the bias years ago. After finally admitting women members in 1973, the organization has elected seven female International Presidents and chosen six women as World Champions of Public Speaking.
In 2022, women are holding top officer and board positions, including International President. Additionally, females are leaders and decision-makers for Toastmasters clubs, Districts, and regions around the world.
Toastmasters is a great place for women to grow. The organization welcomes diversity, supports self-directed achievement, and fosters real gender equality in speaking, leadership, and career advancement opportunities.
Read on to meet five female Toastmasters and learn how they’ve applied inherent talent, education, life experiences, and Toastmasters skills to make their mark on the world.
Arlyne Simon, Ph.D.
Does a patented inventor with a Ph.D. really need Table Topics® to prepare for answering kindergarteners’ questions?
For one very accomplished woman, the answer is yes. Arlyne Simon, from Hillsboro, Oregon, is a platform architect in Intel’s Health and Life Science group and a biomedical engineer by training. She joined Speakeasy Toastmasters two years ago because she wanted to present confidently to any audience, be it fellow engineers, corporate staff—or children.
“Honestly, sometimes I have been more stumped by the questions kids ask than grown-ups,” Simon notes.
Her sessions with elementary school students stem from her education startup, Abby Invents. Simon creates science-oriented picture books and other materials to inspire young students to create inventions. “Abby” has been praised by Purdue University, Science magazine, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
“We show middle school girls there’s a place for them in science.”—Arlyne Simon, Ph.D., on advocating for young women
From 2019-2021, Simon served as a national STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) advocate for girls through the IF/THEN Ambassadors program sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“We show middle school girls that there’s a place for them in science regardless of their skin color or their cultural background,” Simon explains.
“For Black kids and brown kids, it’s about exposure and opportunity,” she says. “Kids must first be exposed to inventors who look like them. Then they must be given opportunities to actually try being an inventor.”
As a Black woman in the male-dominated tech industry, Simon understands the value of opportunities. That’s one of the reasons she feels Toastmasters has given her an edge in a competitive field.
“When I had to give my first keynote, I was able to practice with officers in my club,” she explains. “They helped me improve my hand gestures and camera lighting for virtual meetings. It really helped me deliver a good presentation and it’s something that has had a direct application to my work.”
Nirmala Lilly, DTM
As a girl, Nirmala Lilly was told “boys are for education and girls are for marriage.” It seems she disagreed, as today she is president and CEO of Infinity Hospitality Services, a firm specializing in tourism industry consultancy and training, which she founded after years of working her way up in the hospitality industry.
Lilly is Charter President of Kerala Toastmasters in Kochi, Kerala, India, and Immediate Past District 121 Director. She credits joining Toastmasters in 2006 with helping her gain the confidence to start her own business.
She’s also been active for years in organizations and initiatives that benefit and empower women. Lilly is passionate about helping women succeed; she herself relied on the support of friends and colleagues as she pursued a challenging career path.
“Leadership is all about empowering others to make an impact as individuals and in society.”—Nirmala Lilly, DTM
Lilly ardently believes in mentoring, a practice she carries from Toastmasters into her volunteer activities. Just one example: She leads her state’s chapter of the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry, a nonprofit that advocates for women by pressing for policy change, fostering networks, and offering business development assistance.
Her view on leadership? “It’s all about empowering others to make an impact as individuals and in society,” she explains.
She is especially proud of her work with the ALL Ladies League, an organization that supports women and hosts an annual World Sisterhood Day celebration.
“I enjoy sharing this network and offering a new world of opportunities and sisterhood to all women in the world,” Lilly says.
Despite coming from a childhood where the highest expectation of her was to become a wife, Lilly has shown repeatedly that women can achieve whatever they strive for, especially if they work together to strengthen each other.
Patricia Mensah-Larkai, DTM
Growing up, Patricia Mensah-Larkai, from Accra, Ghana, had the best mentors she could hope for right in her own home—her father, a military officer, and her mother, a police officer.
“My late father ensured his children had strong self-esteem and belief in ourselves to accomplish anything we put our minds to,” she says.
Mensah-Larkai is an administrator for the Ghana Border Commission, which manages the country’s internal and international boundaries. She joined Toastmasters in 2010 to develop better leadership skills. A member of the Perissos Horizon Toastmasters Club in Accra, her passion is coaching and mentoring, both with fellow Toastmasters and beyond. She uses her experience to impact other women’s and youth groups. She also volunteers for the annual National Commission for Civic Education’s Citizen Week programs, which seek to sensitize students on the rights and responsibilities of good citizens.
“Where I come from, the patriarchal society has had a huge impact on how some people still perceive the place of a woman.”—Patricia Mensah-Larkai, DTM
She is especially proud of serving as Accra’s governor for World Speech Day, giving the opportunity for unexpected voices to be heard. The event celebrates live public speaking activities every year in more than 100 countries. As the city’s representative, Mensah-Larkai hopes she is a role model for others, especially for women in her region who may need encouragement to use their voices for positive impacts.
“I want to empower them to fulfill their dreams and aspirations,” she says. “Where I come from, the patriarchal society has had a huge impact on how some people still perceive the place of a woman as someone who should be seen and not heard.”
However, it hasn’t been that way in her life, Mensah-Larkai says. Her husband, like her father, gives her his full support.
“He encourages me to be the change I wish to see in the world,” she says.
Farzana Chohan, DTM, Ph.D.
Farzana Chohan, of Chesterfield, Missouri, is an architect, author, and organizational leadership expert. She’s active in a variety of women-empowering endeavors, including Leadership IN Women, an advocacy initiative to raise awareness of women leaders in non-traditional STEM fields, through her thought leadership, public speaking, and consulting engagements.
Chohan was raised in a culture where girls and women were discouraged from speaking up. When she immigrated to the United States, she brought that mindset with her—for a time.
“I was always self-monitoring,” she explains. “I would sit back in the room and not share my opinion. I was fine doing architectural presentations and leading projects, but in any unfamiliar environment there was a real barrier.”
She remembers volunteering to introduce a panel at a conference of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). She was asked to read two paragraphs to an audience in the hundreds. “I was standing on the stage and reading, and I felt heat rising from my toes to the top of my head,” Chohan says.
“... Unless you start to understand what human beings’ sufferings are ... you will not be able to see human-centered advancement in our society.”—Farzana Chohan, DTM, Ph.D.
Unsurprisingly, she decided that public speaking was not for her. Then she discovered Toastmasters.
“I came across a good mentor—Past International Director Charles ‘Chuck’ Carpenter—when I joined Creve Coeur Toastmasters in Creve Coeur, Missouri. He directed me both in the leadership roles and speaking roles,” Chohan says. “Speaking confidence came gradually.”
The combined sense of practicality and compassion that has motivated Chohan to help others, first showed itself in an unusual project. While pursuing her undergraduate degree in architecture at NED University of Engineering and Technology in her native Pakistan, she undertook a project to design a center for people suffering from leprosy. She visited several existing centers to understand the residents’ lives and needs.
“The first resistance I encountered was from my own cohort and faculty,” she recalled. “They said are you out of your mind? You will come back and spread the infection to us.”
“That was a watershed moment in my life,” Chohan says, “because I realized that unless you start understanding what human beings’ sufferings are and where they are in their life, and you don’t provide for them, you will not be able to see human-centered advancement in our society.”
It is a lesson she carries with her to this day.
Allison Coffin, DTM, Ph.D.
Allison Coffin, an associate professor of integrative physiology and neuroscience at Washington State University, in Vancouver, Washington, started her career with an unusual goal: to chase sharks. She was an undergraduate marine biology major with a yearning to get to know the big fish better.
“I had no idea what I was going to do when I caught them,” she says. “But sharks are amazing, so why not chase them?”
She never did become a shark wrangler, but instead began to study human hearing loss, eventually centering her research on the zebrafish and its ability to regenerate hearing cells. The research, she says, offers promising applications for hearing-impaired people.
Coffin was introduced to Toastmasters through her mother, and quickly saw the benefits.
“I was finishing my master’s degree and the final milestone was a public thesis defense. I felt like joining Toastmasters would help me prepare for it. Instead of being afraid because people were staring at me, I could really focus on the message and what I was saying and enjoy the moment as much as anybody does in the middle of that stressful situation.”
“Having that [Toastmasters] leadership foundation gave me the tool set to be a leader beyond the organization.”—Allison Coffin, DTM, Ph.D.
Coffin has been confidently talking science ever since. In fact, she is a passionate supporter of scientific literacy—helping ordinary people understand how basic science affects them. She is a founder of Science Talk, a nonprofit organization for science communicators. Its focus is to support professional science communicators and increase the impact of science in society.
Coffin says her Toastmasters skills helped her to bring her Science Talk vision to life.
“When I look back, starting Toastmasters and moving into leadership roles such as Club President or Area Director, really was the impetus for founding Science Talk,” she says. “Having that leadership foundation really gave me the tool set to be a leader beyond the organization.”
Her comment is apt. In looking at the work and lives of women who are leaders in Toastmasters and in their professions and communities, it seems clear that a strong foundation of knowledge, combined with the opportunity to grow through mentoring, is the catalyst for visionary women to become great leaders for professional and social change.
Ruth Nasrullah is a freelance journalist based in Houston. She joined Toastmasters in 2006 and since then has belonged to several clubs in the greater Houston area. Visit ruthnasrullah.com to learn more about her and her writing.
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