Through the words and portraits that follow, you'll meet impressive, insightful women from all walks of life—women to whom National Geographic put the same set of questions. Some are notables from our new book WOMEN: The National Geographic Image Collection. Others are National Geographic Society scientists and explorers. Still others belong to Women of Impact, a 56,000-strong online community that National Geographic convened as a place to share women’s stories. Ponder the questions if you like, or make use of the answers. Welcome to the discussion.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
"Being treated equitably, based on ability to contribute, based on skills. Being accepted as equal.” — Ellen Pao (above)
When Pao sued her Silicon Valley employer for gender discrimination, she put the tech field’s treatment of women on trial. In 2015 a jury ruled against Pao, who by then led the social media site Reddit. Now she runs Project Include, a nonprofit she founded to foster inclusion and diversity in the tech world.
She co-founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports efforts to reduce inequality, poverty, and other global ills.
“There isn’t a country on Earth where women have achieved true equality, and the barriers they face look different in different places. But no matter where you are in the world, understanding these barriers is the first step to dismantling them—and that requires making a concerted effort to gather better data about women and their lives. We don’t have reliable information about how many girls are going to school, how many women have the chance to earn an income, what their health and safety looks like, and whether they’re dying preventable deaths. And without that data, we can’t design effective policies or interventions to meet women’s needs. Data is power.”
The primatologist, who did pioneering work as a National Geographic grantee, leads an institute that promotes conservation and education.
“In so many developing countries, women have no freedom. In poor communities families tend to provide money to educate boys over girls. In many cultures women have no access to family planning, have numerous children, and are solely responsible for their care. For these reasons not only women but children—and thus our future—will suffer.”
A Brooklyn-based activist, she’s known as the founder of the #MeToo movement.
“If you ask different people who are passionate about reproductive justice or economic justice, they would have different answers. Obviously, for me, sexual violence is one of the most important challenges facing women. But all of it comes under the umbrella of patriarchy and the ways that patriarchy affects women economically, physically, professionally.”
Leading a largely female staff, this young pediatrician ran an underground hospital caring for Syrians under siege.
“Many women are still facing tyranny and control from the men in their society. This is a big challenge, but necessary for us to change.”
As First Lady of the United States during her husband’s two terms (2001-09), she was a literacy advocate. Through the George W. Bush presidential center, she now chairs a global initiative to improve women’s status.
“My interest in Afghanistan, specifically in the lives of Afghan women, showed me that there are serious challenges in some parts of the world for women just to live safe lives. But I also think that in many parts of the world—and certainly in the United States—it’s a wonderful time for women. When George was president, I looked at the statistics of girls versus boys in the United States and realized that boys needed some attention too. We had focused so much on girls, and girls had become more successful than many boys in school. We expected more from boys in a way, without giving them the sort of nurturing that we did girls. So it’s important that, while we continue to support women at home and around the world, we pay attention to boys too.”
Chief international correspondent for CNN and a veteran war reporter, she has covered conflicts from Bosnia and Rwanda to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The most important challenge is still being considered second-class citizens, and the most important thing for us is to get men on our side, period. This has to be something that men help us with; it’s not a question of just swapping who’s dominant. We’re not looking for female dominance; we’re looking for equality and to level the playing field—and we can’t do that without men’s buy-in as well.”
“The disease to please. It happens when we are not raised to know our own value and our own worth.” — Oprah Winfrey (above)
From a childhood marred by sexual abuse and poverty, she rose to career success, fame, and fulfillment—and uses her life story to encourage downtrodden women. Winfrey is a power player in broadcasting, publishing, and entertainment, and has a fortune estimated at $2.6 billion.
She’s the first woman to hold the following prestigious posts: chair of one of the world’s largest law firms, minister of finance in her native France, and two-term managing director of the International Monetary Fund. In 2019 she was tapped to direct the European Central Bank.
“When I was just 16, my father passed away; that difficult time was one obstacle. And I think one obstacle is actually myself, you know. Over the course of time, the issue of confidence is one I had to struggle with. It’s probably closely related to the passing of my father and the sense of loss that you feel as a result. Then, whenever you face that same sense of loss, that lack of support or love or whatever, you have to build that confidence within yourself. I think love is an extraordinary engine for confidence, and when you lack some of it in an early stage, you have to constantly battle against it.”
A self-described “queer woman of color,” Smith is getting a marine biology master’s degree at California State University, Northridge. She’s in National Geographic’s Women of Impact Community.
“Being raised by a single mother with no involvement of my father was really challenging. I grew up watching my mom struggle to pay bills and to feed my sister and I, but we never went without her love. Poverty and homelessness were two experiences I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but they made me a stronger person. Growing up near Chicago, I never got to study the ocean like I dreamt of, until I received a scholarship to study at the Duke University Marine Lab for a semester. I conducted independent research, made connections, and grew as a scientist. I never thought someone like me could do all of those things!”
An Ojibwa of the Couchiching First Nation and a lawyer, Houska works for indigenous people’s rights, from Washington, D.C., to the sites of protests on tribal lands.
“Not being consumed by experiences of trauma, assault, abuse, and other experiences that were difficult, especially in the formative years. On a personal level it’s enabled me to understand the importance of forgiveness, of moving forward and focusing on how we do better. How do we understand one another and create spaces for survivors? How do we do better as a society overall?”
Prime minister of New Zealand. She was the second world leader in modern history to give birth while in office (daughter Neve was born in June 2018). Nine months later Ardern responded to the massacre of 50 people at mosques in Christchurch by demanding gun law reform.
“Myself. I am my own biggest hurdle, because no one will be a bigger critic of me than me. Whether or not you’re your own worst critic, whether or not you overemphasize your confidence deficit, I do think many women are much harsher on themselves and on their abilities. And I’m one of them.”
A workers’ rights advocate, she is a co-creator of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“Patriarchy is a huge one. Racism. And also—and I think this is a by-product of both of those other things—what people call impostor syndrome. Right? Where you can’t imagine why anyone would think that you could be a leader or consider you to be a leader.”
Asha de Vos
The marine biologist has become an expert on the blue whales found off the coast of her native Sri Lanka.
“First of all, I was creating a sort of new field in Sri Lanka; marine conservation was pretty unheard of before I started. The other challenge is that marine conservation is very, very Western-centric: almost perceived as a field that belongs in the developed world. So I had to prove myself, not just as a woman, but as a locally grown woman.”
A social critic and Purdue University faculty member, Gay is author of best-selling books including "Hunger," "Bad Feminist," and "Difficult Women."
“The biggest hurdles I’ve had to overcome have probably been racism and misogyny and fat phobias. Just dealing with living in a body that this world has tried to legislate or discriminate against in a lot of different ways throughout history. Sort of working against that while trying to just live and thrive is a challenge.”
“After 9/11, I delivered the presidential radio address and described what women were facing in Afghanistan. Americans were shocked and thanked me for speaking out. I realized I had a voice and I needed to use it.” — Laura Bush (above)
The onetime schoolteacher and librarian made literacy promotion her signature issue during her husband’s two terms in the White House (2001-09). Now back in her native Texas, she’s involved in global initiatives to help women attain health care, education, and gender equality.
Nelida E. Jean-Baptiste Pellot
A member of the Women of Impact community and a housing specialist in South Florida
“I tried to commit suicide a while back, and it was dark, but somehow, sitting in the hospital, I found the courage and thirst for life.”
Prime Minister of New Zealand
“I got a letter from a woman in New Zealand who said that she got pregnant around the same time as me, that her boss had been accommodating and flexible when she told him she was pregnant—and that she did not believe that would have happened had I not made my announcement. I don’t know if that’s true, but I remember sitting there and thinking: If me having a baby has made one employer look differently on a woman, a mother, in his workplace, then that is a good thing.”
Oceanographer and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Earle has set records for dive depths and logged more than 7,000 hours underwater. In 1970 she led the first all-woman team to inhabit an ocean-floor lab.
“I had a breakthrough about two things during that first time that I lived underwater. One was as a scientist, getting to see the individuality of creatures
in the sea. The other thing was, as a woman being expected to do what the male aquanauts, scientists, and engineers did, I found that we were treated in a very condescending way. We were called aqua-babes and aqua-belles and aqua-naughties. And I posed the question at the time: Suppose you started calling the astronauts astro-hunks or astro-he-men, what would they think? But in the end, having a sense of humor and just sticking by what we were there to do as scientists and engineers was really what kept us going. And the success of our team helped pave the way for women in space.”
Biologist researching at-risk bat species, with National Geographic support
“The first time I stepped into a classroom to teach, that’s when I fell in love with bat conservation and sharing my passion with others, and felt in my heart that this is how I want to make a difference in the world.”
A longtime advocate for workers’ and women’s rights, she joined with two other women to organize protests against police violence around #BlackLivesMatter.
“My most recent breakthrough is that I belong to myself. Sometimes when you’re in a position such as this one, there are a lot of demands being placed on you: your time, your energy, your heart space. There are more requests for support, for whatever, than you can reasonably engage. So in the process of trying to prioritize, first and foremost you have to prioritize yourself and what you need to be well.”
Co-founder of the March for Our Lives movement and an advocate for LGBTQ rights
“I’ve been pretty self-aware as to who I am, but there are definitely things that happened, like the 'We call BS' speech when I became nationally recognized, which was a pretty big part of my life. In ninth grade I started questioning my sexuality, and then I came out, and that was a big part of my life too. But I think I’ve been pretty comfortable in my own skin for a very long time.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The award-winning author of novels and essays is also acclaimed for her Ted Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” and for receiving a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
“It was when I was nine years old, in the third grade, and I remember this very clearly. My teacher had said that the child with the best results on the test that she gave would be the prefect. So I got the best result—and then she said, ‘Oh, I forgot to mention, it has to be a boy.’ I just thought, Why? It would make sense to have said the class prefect has to be the child with the best grades or the child with some sort of useful skill. But the idea that this position of prestige and power in the classroom was reserved for somebody by an accident of being born a particular sex—that was just strange. So my sense of righteous indignation flared up, and I said to my teacher, ‘That makes no sense.’ That was the first time that I spoke up about sexism. It didn’t work, but it was the moment for me that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
“There will be no healthy women on a dead planet.” — Kris Tompkins (above)
In eco-conscious retail, Kris McDivitt headed Patagonia, and Doug Tompkins co-founded North Face. Kris retired in 1993; the two wed, and began buying and preserving parkland in Chile and Argentina. Since Doug’s death in a 2015 accident, Kris Tompkins presses on. Protected to date: 14.2 million acres.
In her 20s she began work on technology that revolutionized the use of lasers—and won her a share of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. Today she’s a physics professor.
“What I would like to see is that, in the next 10 years, if we really have made it, we won’t even have to talk about it. I think that’s really the point that we want to get to. I am a little surprised at the big deal this has made, that I am the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics; I had not even realized that I was. But also what I don’t want—and what I do sort of see—is this huge pendulum swing: To try to get women ahead, we’re leaving some men behind. There are far more women at university now than we’ve ever had, and in many of the disciplines women are outnumbering the men now. At some point we have to start worrying about why boys are not going.”
An oceanographer and National Geographic explorer-in-residence. Her efforts in ocean conservation earned her the title “Hero for the Planet” from Time magazine.
“Equal opportunity. To be judged on merit. The change is not just how women are regarded by men, but how women regard themselves. You know, it starts with you.”
On Forbes magazine’s 2018 list of the world’s most powerful women, International Monetary Fund managing director Lagarde ranked third behind two heads of state: Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s Theresa May.
“I think the most important thing is that there be many more women in positions of authority and power. That will be the conduit of many other things that we all need, such as equal opportunity, equal pay, space, and respect. So, many more women in positions of authority and power in all sectors, public and private alike, in the developed and developing worlds. If you give me a second choice, I would say: at least seven years, if not more, of quality education for all girls, particularly in the least developed countries. Because young girls with education will find themselves with more parity with boys. We observe, in the economic research that we do, that they will tend to marry later in life, will typically have fewer children in the course of their life, and be able to make better choices in general.”
National Geographic explorer Guyton focuses on studying mammals and conservation in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.
“We need to elevate female voices and stories, in journalism, film, photography, and more. For too long we’ve been seeing the world primarily through men’s eyes.”
An ocean ecologist, Giddens is a fellow at the National Geographic Society’s Exploration Technology Lab, where she’s developing a research program to assess biodiversity and the health of ecosystems in the deep sea.
“The media portrayal of women as objects. It would be a lot easier to move forward with where we need to go if the message from mainstream media supported women’s roles as the keepers of wisdom and cooperation.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The award-winning author of novels and essays is also acclaimed for her TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists.”
“More women’s representation will result in more diverse decisions that incorporate women’s experiences. I don’t think having women in positions of power means that the world is going to be perfect or that conflict will be eradicated. It just means that the concerns of half of the world’s population will finally be center stage.”
An Olympic gold medalist in soccer, a repeat Player of the Year for the U.S. league, a World Cup champion in 2015 and 2019, and an advocate for equal pay in men’s and women’s sports.
“The single most important change is getting more women in senior roles and putting women in positions of power, where they can implement policies that lead to long-lasting change. That means a woman being paid a dollar to every dollar that a man makes. And that means having fair maternity and paternity benefits for people who want to have families: That’s a necessity.”
“My ability to ignore it when I get no for an answer.” — Alicia Garza (above)
In 2013, when the man who fatally shot black teen Trayvon Martin was acquitted, Garza took to Facebook with a call for justice that insisted, “Black lives matter.” In the years since, Garza and two other activists, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, have inspired and led the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
A photographer living on the French island of Réunion, Rainard is a member of the Women of Impact community.
“Resilience. Because I am queer, I have experienced physical and social violence in most of my life. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Now I use this strength in my job, as an explorer in rough environments.”
The world-famous entertainer has an empire of print, digital, and broadcast media properties. She built and oversees a girls school in South Africa, whose students call her “Mum O.”
“No question, it’s connection to other people. You know, I’ve interviewed rapists and murderers and child molesters and all kinds of people who have done terrible things—but I can put myself in the space of where they are in that moment and meet them where they are. So my ability to connect to where you are in that moment—not to the thing that supposedly defines you—that’s one of my great strengths. I think that had I had the love, the attention, the family surroundings that would have nurtured and supported me in the way that I thought I needed, I wouldn’t have it. I think that this connection and yearning to know the heart of other people came from my own sense of loneliness, my own sense of wanting to be understood and know that whatever I’m feeling, somebody else has felt it too.”
The biochemist’s research, with colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, led to the discovery of a revolutionary gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-CAS9. Today Doudna promotes the ethical use of gene-altering technologies.
“Probably my stubbornness. I get an idea in my mind, and I don’t want to give it up. My definition of success was not success in terms of monetary reward or even professional recognition. It was more at the level of, Can I actually do science that I’m going to be proud of? And can I feel like I’ve made the right choice with my life, that I decided to do something that I can actually do well? There were a number of times when I was younger when I thought maybe the answer is no and maybe I’m on the wrong track. And again, my stubbornness came into play, because I’m also not a quitter. So I’d have voices in my head doubting what I was doing—but then I’d have contradictory voices saying, But you’re not going to quit.”
Yosemite National Park’s first female fire chief and a Women of Impact member, she decried gender bias in the Park Service.
“Grit and perseverance to persist through what at times seemed like insurmountable gender discrimination, in an effort to show young women they can succeed in a male-dominated field.”
“Strength and a certain humility—you know, the opposite of arrogance. I refuse to be seduced by the trappings that come with success, and I keep my feet firmly planted on the ground.”
A Democratic congresswoman from California, she is two-time speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the first woman elected to that leadership post.
“Sometimes people say ‘tough,’ and I’m thinking, No, tough’s wrong. I think I’m strong; I have strength. The strength sprang from my purpose, my knowledge, my strategic thinking—and that gives me a sense of security. So that’s what I think some people recognize: that I’m not going to fold from weakness. I may concede on the strength of your argument, but I’m not folding from weakness.”
She fueled the U.S. team’s 2019 World Cup win with five goals in one match.
“My greatest strength is feeling confident enough to know I can always bet on myself. When I set my mind to something, I never stop working until I accomplish it and feel like I’ve reached my full potential. Additionally, throughout my career I have always made sure I surround myself with people who tell the truth, who state their opinions, and who have my best interests at heart.”
“Not being afraid is very important. You may feel like you failed and there's no way to recover, but you can.” — Tara Houska (above)
Indigenous rights activist, attorney, and an Ojibwa of the Couchiching First Nation in Ontario, Houska uses law and advocacy to champion indigenous people’s concerns, from Washington, D.C., to the sites of protests against pipelines on tribal lands. She co-founded Not Your Mascots, a nonprofit fighting stereotypes of indigenous people.
Former CEO of the retailer Patagonia, Tompkins now focuses on the South American land preservation initiative she began with her late husband, Doug Tompkins. Her initiative is a partner of the National Geographic Society’s Last Wild Places Program.
“So many women lack self-confidence. You have to jump 30 more hurdles than the guy next to you to get to the same place. You have to be calculating, you have to be checking all the signals in the room, you have to pick your space, pick your time to say something, to be something. Imagine the inherent exhaustion in all of that! I would say that you need to go for things, trust your instincts, and remember that luck is often a product of hard work. And be outlandish; don’t worry about what people are going to think about you. Don’t worry about failing or succeeding, just go for things because you think they’re the right thing. And don’t sit back in the back seat and be driven; get in the front seat, put the key in the ignition, and drive.”
Zhang Xin, who at 15 worked 12-hour days in a factory, is known as “the woman who built Beijing.” The property development firm that she and her husband founded in 1995 is now among Asia’s largest.
“I see many women really struggling when they want to spend the first couple of years with their babies, but they still have their career. Careers are for a lifetime, from college graduation to your retirement. Keep in mind that your career is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to pace yourself properly to make sure you will make it to the end in good shape.”
This National Geographic explorer created an interactive project about migration and cultural diversity.
“Don’t be scared of what excites you. Always stay curious about yourself and the people and places around you. Focus on the work and goals you have set for yourself, and never compare yourself to others.”
She joined Microsoft in 1987, married its co-founder in 1994, and now helps run the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Fitting in is overrated. I spent my first few years at my first job out of college doing everything I could to make myself more like the people around me. It didn’t bring out the best in me—and it didn’t position me to bring out the best in others. The best advice I have to offer is: Seek out people and environments that empower you to be nothing but yourself.”
Asha de Vos
For months the aspiring scientist wrote seeking work on a whale research vessel, until finally she was hired—as a deckhand. Today she’s the only Sri Lankan with a Ph.D. in marine mammal research. A National Geographic grantee, de Vos founded the nonprofit group Oceanswell, which aims to promote conservation by equipping students to conduct marine research.
“I would say, try to be defined not by your gender but by your capacity. The harder you work, the more you throw yourself into something you’re passionate about, the more your work starts to speak for itself. That’s actually what’s helped me. At the start everyone was like, 'But you’re a girl.' And today, nobody cares what I am. I’m a necessity: The system needs me to help to make changes. I would say to any girl out there, that’s what you want to aim for—to be defined not by your gender but by your capabilities.”
Her soccer prowess made her a repeat Player of the Year for the U.S. Soccer league and a standout in back-to-back World Cup championships.
“Don’t be discouraged in your journey. If people talk badly about you, if people say you can’t achieve something, don’t let it discourage you; let it drive you forward. Listen to yourself, listen to your gut, and listen to the people in your life that you trust. Let your passions be your guide.”
A 2019 National Geographic explorer who is focused on linking environmental science to policy action and on reducing plastic pollution in Earth’s oceans. Recently, Owens trained more than 50 teachers in Kerala, India, on how to engage their students in marine debris collection.
“Keep your head down and keep working. Just keep providing evidence that you are great through hard work. Eventually, people won’t be able to deny your talent. Do what you love and all the work will feel like fun.”
This story is part of our November 2019 special issue of National Geographic magazine, “Women: A Century of Change.” Read more stories here.