Defining Divas (

Defining Divas


I’m always looking for a way to meet a diva. Can you blame me if I hope to meet Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Dolly Parton, or Nadine Sierra?

You are probably wondering who Nadine Sierra is, if you’re not an opera-lover. Born in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Sierra is a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and made her Met debut as Rigoletto’s Gilda in 2015. In Latin, “diva” means goddess, however, during the 19th century a French opera critic adopted the word to describe a talented soprano or mezzo-soprano (contralto) soloist in the opera. 

Later on, people co-opted “diva” as the archetype of a great performer in any genre. Diva also has come to be a label, connoting a prima donna, someone who is difficult to work with or demanding. We’ve all heard stories about celebrities’ diva-demands stipulated in their contract riders, such as requiring their crew members to wear all cotton or a dressing room equipped with a smoothie station or a basket of puppies.

Curious about the diva archetype since I’ve classified some people as such regardless of their gender identity or gender expression, I want to see the DIVA exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, which “celebrates the power and creativity of iconic performers, exploring and redefining the role of ‘diva’ and how this has been subverted or embraced over time across opera, stage, popular music, and film.”

Whether in the arts, politics, corporate boardrooms, or academia, women often face obstacles, keeping them from leadership roles to divahood. For example, just 13 UN member countries are currently led by women; in 9 of those 13, the current leader is the country’s first woman head of government. In the U.S., although women outnumber men in earning master’s degrees, medical and legal degrees, men are far more likely than women to rise to the highest paying and most prestigious leadership roles.

Even when possessing the same characteristics as their male counterparts, people aren’t always supportive of women leaders, viewing women more harshly. Women often battle sexist comments, as well. I believe this is most true in corporate settings, academia and politics, for divas in the arts often receive great support from their fans. Furthermore, despite strides in representation, a surprising number of people across the world still don’t trust women to lead effectively. Bias or implicit bias is difficult to change. 

Besides glass ceilings that remain intact, women in leadership roles face multiple barriers from lack of sponsorship to conventional corporate pipelines of talent to opaque policies for ascension to hegemony or implicit bias. I mean—contemplate the Rockefeller Foundation’s goal of 20% women CEOs in the Fortune 500 by 2025. Shouldn’t it be 50%? And rightly so, the Rockefeller Foundation points out that opportunities for women to advance need to evolve from being fortuitous to systemic. The bottom line–one’s gender should not be a barrier or factor for success—for divahood.

Some divas find fulfullment by aligning their career goals with advancing the social good. Over a decade ago, Beyoncé founded the BeyGOOD Foundation, which focuses on economic equity and education by supporting organizations that serve marginalized and under-resourced communities. “From scholarships to the water crisis in Burundi, to helping families during Hurricane Harvey in my hometown, Houston, it has been beyond fulfilling to be of service,” said Beyoncé.   

In 2023, because they are so numerous, Billboard magazine actually created a timeline of Dolly Parton’s biggest philanthropic efforts. Using her status and wealth for promoting the social good, Parton has supported science research, underrepresented communities, as well as the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes, Save the Music Foundation, and the Boot Campaign, among others.

I imagine one of the reasons Lady Gaga’s legion of fans are passionately devoted to her is her own devotion to supporting them and young people in general. “Born This Way Foundation, co-founded and led by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, supports the mental health of young people and works with them to build a kinder and braver world. Through high-impact programming, youth-led conversations, and strategic, cross-sectoral partnerships, the Foundation aims to make kindness cool, validate the emotions of young people, and eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health.” 

Of course, divahood isn’t limited to the arts. Julie Sweet, J.D., chair and CEO of Accenture, serves on the World Economic Forum Board of Trustees. Additionally, Sweet is board chair of Catalyst and serves on the board of trustees for the Center for Strategic & International Studies and for the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities – Bridges from School to Work

Reshma Kewalramani, CEO and president, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Inc., is passionate about developing and supporting the next generation of scientists and giving back to her community — serving as a member of the board of directors of the Biomedical Science Careers Program, an organization dedicated to supporting underrepresented students to pursue a career in STEM.  

Dr. Lisa Su, chair and CEO, AMD, is the recipient of 2022 International Peace Honors Honoree for her achievements in revolutionizing high-performance computing, the donation of supercomputing power for infectious disease research, and inspiring people from all backgrounds to pursue careers in STEM.

For my forthcoming book, A Career is a Promise: Finding Purpose, Success, and Fulfillment, I interviewed esteemed leaders worldwide in the fields of artificial intelligence, medicine, biotech, sports, the arts, design, and advocacy on a range of topics including their key career experiences and personal journeys. Whether a CEO, tennis champion or a designer, leaders who align their personal values with their career goals find greater purpose. 

I’d like to claim diva-ship to describe leaders who act on behalf of the greater good—divas who identify themselves by their values, goals, and deeds rather than by labels, even when the label means goddess.

Written by Robin Landa.

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