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Women's empowerment

“Success is about having a vision and being privileged enough to see the impact” 

Published 22 March 2024 in Women's empowerment • 8 min read

Lana Haddad, Chief Operating Officer at the International Olympic Committee, reflects on what has propelled her to succeed in traditionally male-dominated industries.

Every four years, thousands of athletes go to the Olympic Games with a dream to excel in their chosen sport under the motto: “Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communiter”, which translates as “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”.

Although not a professional athlete myself, I’ve had a dream from a young age that I would not let obstacles or challenges stand in my way – whether by funding myself through university, becoming one of the few women engineers in an organization, running global teams as a finance executive, or, more recently, being part of implementing the reforms launched by our President in 2014, Olympic Agenda 2020. One of the key reforms was to foster gender equality in the Olympic Movement and at the International Olympic Committee (IOC). For me, success is not about the level you achieve; it’s about having a vision and being privileged enough to see the impact.

Studying and supporting myself and two younger brothers as a teenager in Wales while our parents returned to Iraq, I recall a telephone conversation with my father in which I asked him how I was expected to survive. “I do not expect you to survive, I expect you to excel,” he replied. This sentence has stayed with me and served as an inspiration for seeking success ever since.

My dreams have changed over the years. I first wanted to be one of the first female engineers. I achieved that and moved on to the next goal. I believe it’s important to have many goals. As the saying goes, don’t put your eggs in one basket. Wanting to have a positive impact also encompasses pursuing passions outside work, whether this is my interest in physics, astronomy, and real estate or my desire to have new experiences. It may take five, 10, or even 20 years to achieve your goals. What matters is that you keep the dream alive and don’t give up.

In 2023, the number of female IOC Members rose to 41 per cent, 100 per cent more than in 2013, also adding more diversity in terms of age and regional representation

One of my motivations for joining the IOC was the mission of the Olympic Movement to build a better world through sport. My father was a high-performance athlete who won medals in the shot put. I witnessed first-hand the transformative impact of the funding he received through the solidarity program of the Olympic Movement, which also enabled him to train and inspire other young people in Iraq. If you can engage youth in a constructive activity like sport, you will make such a difference to society overall.

The first gender-equal Olympic Games

Part of the IOC’s reforms is to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and to implement the principle of equality between men and women. Paris 2024 is set to be the first Olympics in history with full gender parity: 50/50. At the Paris 1900 Games – the first where women were allowed to participate – just 2.2% of participating athletes were female. By the Los Angeles Games in 1984, this number was still only 23%. In recent years, the pace has gradually accelerated. At London 2012, the female participation rate was 44%, rising to 48% at Tokyo 2020.

Achieving gender equality took strength, perseverance, leadership, and courage. It’s been a collective effort. Key initiatives delivered in coordination with International Federations (IFs) and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) have led to equal opportunities for female and male athletes to participate in the Olympic Games.

We have also increased the visibility of women at the Olympic Games by encouraging every team to have one male and one female flag bearer at the opening ceremony – one of the most-watched television events worldwide with an audience of hundreds of millions of viewers. We have also increased the number of women’s events that are broadcast during prime-time slots.

“We want to go beyond gender parity among athletes to address the gender gap that still exists across all leadership roles at the Olympic Games.”

At the same time, this is not just about the field of play. We want to go beyond gender parity among athletes to address the gender gap that still exists across all leadership roles at the Olympic Games, such as technical officials and coaches. At Tokyo 2020, for example, only 13% of coaches were women. To address this issue, we launched the WISH program (Women in Sport High Performance Pathway), funded by Olympic Solidarity.   

Our reforms did not stop there. We knew that if we weren’t walking the talk ourselves at the IOC, we could hardly expect the NOCs and IFs to follow suit. We have doubled the number of females among the IOC Members; 41% are now women. The positions across the IOC commissions are now equally distributed, 50:50, while 42% of the commissions are chaired by women. This could only be achieved through deliberate action by the IOC President and IOC Members.

We also looked at the IOC staff and started by adopting a diversity and inclusion action plan. In 2013, 39% of our senior managers were women and 14% of our directors were women. This has now increased to 50% and 30% respectively. We have also made concerted efforts to improve diversity in other areas too. So, for example, in 2017, people from 47 nationalities were working for the IOC. Today, more than 70 nationalities are represented.

Alongside the reforms of the Olympic Agenda 2020, we launched the People Management 2020 program. Its focus is to foster gender diversity by changing the way we recruit and advertise to attract more women. But it’s not just a numbers game. We have created an environment that encourages the women we attract to stay and thrive. At the IOC, we have implemented flexible working policies and looked to create career paths within the organization that offer greater job satisfaction. We have also implemented a policy that encourages people to speak up without fear of retaliation.

What ultimately kept us going was our dedication to a clear vision.

When reflecting on what has personally propelled me to succeed as a senior woman in traditionally male-dominated sectors like engineering and finance, I can offer the following pieces of advice:

Seek out mentors

I have been fortunate to benefit from the support and advice of male and female colleagues and managers throughout my career. For women to succeed in top jobs, I firmly believe they need to have one or two coaches or mentors who can help them pinpoint the areas they need to work on to move up the ladder, but will also act as confidants and advisors and advocate for and support you in challenging times.

While it’s true that the bar is often set much higher for women leaders, the way I have earned respect is by showing others that I respect them and that I can add value. As soon as you earn respect from peers for what you do and the way you do it, they start to forget what you look like and listen to your words and actions.

Provide practical solutions to problems

My philosophy has always been to raise problems as you come across them and, importantly, to provide solutions at the same time. Ideally, you should give three options for how to approach a certain problem, as well as what you believe should be the recommended course of action. This way of operating cements your authority and credibility but also fosters collaboration because people will recognize that you come with a “let’s fix it” attitude.

Trust your team and have a clear vision

I started my career as a process engineer at British Gas before qualifying as a chartered management accountant and taking on several global roles leading organizational change at Procter & Gamble. I also have a PhD in chemical engineering. This varied and non-typical career path (especially for a CFO) is now paying off in my current role as Chief Operating Officer, which I took on in 2019. As a COO, I have responsibilities spanning finance, events, and hospitality management to legal, IT, and HR. There is no way you can be an expert across all these areas. You need to hire people who are better than you, trust your teams, listen to what they tell you, and make informed and clear decisions.

The importance of having a clear vision and mission was thrown into sharp relief during the COVID-19 pandemic when the IOC faced the conundrum of whether to cancel or proceed with the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The easiest thing to do would have been to cancel the Games. Yet we knew doing so would dash the hopes and dreams of a generation of athletes who had perhaps trained for years for this one shot at a medal. So, we decided to postpone the Games by one year and then got to work on how we were going to deliver the goal.

Despite the challenges during the pandemic, I feel immensely privileged to have worked at the IOC during this time. As the world economy came under pressure, we were able to support the athletes, International Sports Federations, and National Olympic Committees who were reeling from the lost income caused by the cancellation of championships due to pandemic restrictions.

In addition, we were able to find ways to deliver vaccines to athletes and officials to create a safe environment for all of them at the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 and the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. What ultimately kept us going was our dedication to a clear vision. Knowing that it was the dream of thousands of athletes to compete really galvanized us as a leadership team and taught us a lot about one another.


Lana Haddad

IOC’s Chief Operating Officer

Lana Haddad was appointed as the IOC’s Chief Operating Officer in 2019, having been Chief Financial Officer since 2013. Prior to joining the IOC, she worked with Procter & Gamble from 2000 to 2013, and before that served as a process engineer for British Gas from 1990 to 1995. She received both her bachelor’s degree and her PhD in chemical engineering from Swansea University, in 1989 and 1992, respectively. She is also a fully ACMC-qualified charted management accountant and has a diploma from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in the UK. Haddad was born in Iraq and holds dual Iraqi and British nationalities. 



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