Women in Leadership: Lucia Lasso

By Aldis Brennan, Canadian Red Cross

Lucia Lasso is one of two full-time Head of Emergency Operations with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which means she’s almost always thinking about disasters.
 Lucia sitting on a curb beside a Red Cross van
Often, she’s leading a large international emergency response somewhere in the world. But even when she’s not actively engaged in an operation, she spends her time thinking about how the Red Cross can respond to emergencies more effectively. This includes encouraging other women to aspire to positions of leadership.
 
One of the things Lucia has heard from other women working in emergency operations at the Red Cross is that leadership positions are not for them. They don’t see enough women being given or taking on these roles and so can’t envision themselves in those positions either. Often that means they don’t apply at all. Lucia hopes to help change that.
 
“Women tend to undersell themselves a lot more than men or think they’re less competent than they are,” Lucia explains. “We want to show that it is possible, that the skills and competencies they have are valuable, that it’s okay to lead in a different way.”
 
Still, she understands why some women are hesitant to try to become leaders. Lucia has spent over a decade working with non-profits in her home country of Panama and has responded to emergencies around the world like droughts in Ethiopia, Ebola, and population movement in Europe. Yet when she was encouraged to apply for a leadership position through the Developing Head of Emergency Operations (DHeOps) program, she initially said no. She wasn’t sure she was ready.
 
Part of that hesitation comes from the misconception that to be qualified for a leadership position, you must already have all the tools you need for the job. But Lucia learned this wasn’t necessarily true when she eventually did apply for — and successfully completed — the DHeOps program. Her passion for the work overcame her concerns about not being qualified.
 
Lucia smiling with a group of people sitting nearby“Yes, you definitely need to have experience in emergencies. It’s not an entry-level program by any means,” Lucia says. “But you don’t need to have 15 years of emergency response experience either. If you have that, you probably don’t need the program. It’s really about having that middle-level experience and using the program to go that extra mile.”
 
The other challenge many women face is overcoming self-doubt or the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’ — the feeling that at any moment your colleagues will discover that you have no idea what you’re doing. What’s helped Lucia overcome those moments of doubt is having a strong support system. Often all it takes is for a colleague to recognize her achievements or reflect on a time when she successfully navigated a similar issue.
 
“It’s like having a sounding board that echoes back your own skills and competencies that you sometimes forget,” says Lucia. “They remind you of the positive things that you erase from your memory.”
 
Unfortunately, there are also external factors that make it more difficult for women to ascend to the highest levels. These are the “little things that are like a knife in your side” as Lucia describes them, like the senior leader who only listens to his male staff or the colleague who is recognized based on the assumption that, as a man, he must have been the expert.
 
“When you face those things, you just have to become even more stubborn and let it give you more energy instead of draining you. I think that’s something that I was always aware of,” Lucia shares. “I had really good role models as a child between my grandmother and my mother. I never felt that I couldn’t do something because I was a woman. Their message was quite the contrary.”
Lucia standing at a podium speaking into a microphone with a large screen behind with text: Day #13: We did it...! 
Change is slow, but Lucia does believe it can happen. It starts with one more woman in leadership, then two, three. Suddenly there’s another woman who’s listening, who sees your accomplishments, who understands that there are many different ways to be a leader. But it’s not up to women alone – 
everyone bears the responsibility of making sure that gender equality is fully realized.
 
“Things can make you angry or sad or frustrated, you’re allowed to have those emotions, but they can’t be the only ones,” Lucia explains. “You have to keep moving forward because the more challenges you overcome the easier it gets. The more experience you get the more confident you become in yourself. So, I think it’s just about keeping going because it’s going to get easier.”
 
The Canadian Red Cross supports the Developing Head of Emergency Operations program through funding and training opportunities and have several Canadian personnel who have joined the program.
 
If you’re interested in joining the Red Cross, check out our current career and volunteer opportunities.

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