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Pivotal Women Surround Us

By James R. Scapa | Chairman and Chief Executive Officer |

Pivotal Women Surround Us

This week the world celebrated International Women’s Day and this month we celebrate Women’s History Month, an annual declared month that highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.

Such occasions inspire me to reflect on how women are central to my experiences, perspectives about life, and success.  

My parents were Jewish and from Greece where many Jews emigrated in 1492 when Spain issued the Alhambra decree forcing Jews to convert to Christianity or leave the country.

My mother, Edmée, was from a small town in northern Greece called Komotini. Born in the 1920s when the town’s population was around 10,000, my mother was one of approximately 1,000 who were Jewish. In 1943, 98 percent of those Jews were sent to Nazi death camps and did not survive. My mother’s family was fortunate because her father cleverly managed to secure forged Spanish citizenship documents so when the Nazis came to round up the Jews, they released her family of four and fifteen other individuals with Spanish or Italian citizenship (Spain was neutral during the war and Italy was an ally of Germany).

In those days, girls were not expected to work and learn a trade and were often far less educated. And while Edmée was Jewish, her parents sent her to a Catholic boarding school where she learned basic math and how to read. Notable for that period, she was also taught etiquette, and learned to speak Italian and French.

Even with these opportunities, I would say my mother was relatively uneducated and very superstitious, but she had incredibly high emotional intelligence and could read people extremely well. My father was bright and taught me a lot of business and negotiation skills, but he was a poor judge of character. My mother taught me to pay attention to the small things a person says or does, and to their subtle mannerisms, to see more deeply what motivates them and their aspirations.

My mother-in-law, Lillian, who recently passed away at 94 was also a great influence. She was a typical midwestern, lower middle class, American woman but one who I found to be remarkably sharp and who grew wiser as the years went on. As a result of experiencing many trials and tribulations in her life, Lillian was tough but also equally caring, loving, and very tolerant of others. She was graceful, quick (an amazing card player), and had a calm demeaner until her last moment. 

When I met my wife Sally, at age 21 we were both very young. For me, Sally was exciting and fun, while I was a typical nerdy engineer. In those days, women were primarily driven to careers as homemakers, teachers, and nurses. Engineering, accounting, law, and medicine required real grit to succeed in as a woman. Sally studied accounting but found many of the barriers and biases women faced then, and more subtly still exist today. 

Sally lives in the present in that she enjoys the moment. I live in the future and tend to always be thinking about what lies ahead. I believe we have learned from each other how to do a little of both – enjoy today while still envisioning the future.

Including Sally, my daughters and my granddaughters I am surrounded by 10 intelligent, fun, and caring women I learn from every day.  I am the only male in the family – so far – and it’s a delight to be encircled by all their energy.  

I am a strong advocate for women to study math and sciences and to take their places in all facets of society, especially with respect to technology. I believe if we continue to create opportunities for women as professors in universities, executives and board members in companies, and as leaders in government, we will all benefit from the more balanced perspectives this will bring to our world. 

It is my personal commitment to do the same at Altair as we work to have women represent 50 percent of our global workforce, including our senior executives and board of directors. We’re well on our way and I look forward to that day.

Edmée, Lillian, and Sally all experienced different levels of pressure to adhere to societal norms for women. It’s clearly evolved and improved through the years but it’s important we continue to work to make opportunities available equally for everyone.