Empowering women and breaking the molds that women face on a day-to-day basis was the common theme throughout the night as the first annual women leaders lecture, hosted by the Young Democrats Club, took place Nov. 18 in the University Student Union’s Balboa Room.
The panel of five individuals representing women leaders, organized by Young Democrat members Pious Ahuja, a political science major, and Natalie Parmenter, a liberal studies major, consisted of a group of women with high levels of education and high-power careers.
Dina Cervantes, Sheena Malhotra, Suzanne Whang, Marcia Zellers and Tamar Galatzan shared their first job experiences, their inspirations in life and the challenges that women must overcome to be successful figures of authority.
“I always felt like I was this macho guy trapped in this little woman body,” said Whang, an actress of 20 years, comedian of seven years, published author and current host of HGTV’s “House Hunters.”
Most of the women on the panel admitted having a similar feeling to Whang while growing up and even today as adult women.
Galatzan, who is a Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney with the Neighborhood Prosecutor Program and a member of the Los Angeles school board, recalled a time in fourth grade when she organized a walk-out because a physical education teacher told all the girls to cheer on the sidelines while the boys played all the sports. She said all the students sat on the kickball field until the teacher allowed Galatzan to play.
Zellers, who is the head of digital media at the Fashion Institute in Downtown Los Angeles and a single parent of a 7-year-old daughter, said that while growing up she was always very feminine, doing things that many young girls do such as play with dolls, but she did notice that there was a dominance in her personality that other girls did not necessarily possess.
Family problems, ditching school and doing drugs, Cervantes said, were the primary reasons she spent time at a continuation high school for at-risk students.
“I used to hang out with gangsters,” Cervantes said. “I was looking for a family.”
Despite a troubled youth, Cervantes realized several years later that the people she was hanging out with were not her family, and even though her real family had its problems, they would always be there for her.
Cervantes graduated from CSUN a year and a half ago and is now working with the Los Angeles Unified School District as a field deputy making sure that schools’ needs are being met.
Life was much different for Malhotra, who grew up in India working in the film and TV industry, and now she is the chair of the women and gender studies department at CSUN.
While growing up, Malhotra found herself gravitating toward a liberal outlook on life, but what is considered very liberal in India, Malhotra found to be rather conservative in the United States, and it took some adjusting and a college professor mentor for Malhotra to discover what ideas she actually believed.
“I think I had very much the stereotype in my head of what a feminist was,” Malhotra said.
She said that with the help of her mentor she was able to really understand the concept of feminism and secure her beliefs.
This panel of women not only were inspired in different ways to get to the positions they are now in, but along the way they each had to dabble in different areas of work before finding their niche.
“Mine was child prostitution,” Whang said, jokingly. “My parents are very proud of me.”
Actually, Whang had her first job by the age of 17 as a dental assistant. A few years later, while studying math at Yale, she was disappointed by under-challenging math courses and found psychology more interesting. It was not until she received her masters from Brown University that she really got into acting and emerged into the entertainment business.
Galatzan said that when she was a little girl her dream job was to be an archeologist, but that dream never manifested into anything and instead she started out working in sales and customer service.
“I was 15, I sold shoes,” Galatzan said. “I can look at anyone’s feet and tell what shoe size they are.”
During college Galatzan called herself the “queen of internships.”
Today Galatzan said she loves her jobs even though it is sometimes a struggle to balance being a mom to two young boys, ages five and seven.
She is the only member on the Los Angeles school board with school-aged kids. Sometimes she must leave work to care for her sons, and that is only part of the battle.
Galatzan said that while she was campaigning to become a board member and often away from her children, other women would say to her, “If you’re really a good mother, you’d stay home with your kids.”
For Malhotra, her dream job of becoming a teacher is now a reality.
From the time in elementary school when one of her teachers had to step out of the room and told Malhotra she was to monitor the class, she found herself taking the job very seriously, threatening students with a ruler if they misbehaved. She said that having that kind of power attracted her.
Working in the marketing business was not where Zellers ever thought she’d have a career.
“As a woman I have to be three times better (than a man) to be considered competent,” Zellers said.
Although she is happy with her job, she still feels as though she is not where she wants to be.
“I always felt like this creative person,” Zellers said.
Her philosophy about life is that people go through a series of quests to find out what they want, and personally she feels as though she has yet to reach her full potential.
Maybe this is “divine dissatisfaction,” as Whang calls it; the idea that a person is always striving for more, that continues to push these five women to be confident, strong leaders and reshape how women are perceived in today’s society.