Remarkable Zonta leader reflects on her presidency and Zonta's future

Past Zonta International President Sharon Langenbeck always dreamt of having a career that would give her independence and self-sufficiency. To realize that goal, Sharon worked extremely hard and was rewarded for her efforts. She was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia and received the Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellowship twice.

While working at the Lockheed-California Company—where she was the first woman with a technical Ph.D.—Sharon became a project manager, developing new high-temperature aluminum materials for high-speed aircraft, for which she received a patent, while also being a part-time faculty member at California State University, Northridge. In 1988, she became the first woman to be appointed a division manager in the directorate.

Later, Sharon joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where she managed the mechanical work on the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 for Hubble Space Telescope and eventually managed work for the Mars missions and rovers.

A Zonta member of nearly 43 years, Sharon held positions as club president, Amelia Earhart Committee chair, international director and vice president before serving as international president from 2020 to 2022. In June, she was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chair of the 2020-2022 Zonta International Leadership Development Committee.

Here are some of the top takeaways from their conversation:

Key projects and takeaways from the 2020-2022 Biennium

"This Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories is at the top of the list. I just feel that this is an opportunity for not only our members, but an opportunity to outreach to women and girls around the world. Everyone has a unique story and listening to them, you get the inspiration, you get little things that I hadn't thought about and so that was just a wonderful series to kick off this biennium.

"Another thing that I like is the fact that we've been doing the webinars for advocacy. And it's been based on teamwork; it's been based on having the advocacy, the service, the United Nations, the Council of Europe committees, working together on those topics, and so it shows to our membership how we are working together on our committees.

"And then, with a resolution where we have been looking at the organization and are we positioned well for our second century. That has been a big focus for our board and to understand: What is the interest of our members, and where can we have the best footing for us as we continue in our second century?

"And one of the things I'm very proud of is that our international service projects, when the pandemic hit, they were able to adjust to continue to work on our objectives, but to modify as necessary because of the pandemic, and so I'm very proud of our UN agencies that we work with that they have been able to accommodate that."

What Sharon is most proud of

"I'm proud that we … have been able to adapt to this rapidly changing world. … When I think back two years ago it was, 'Once we get the vaccines, we will be back to the way it was.' But that goalpost kept changing. Being able to adapt under uncertainty and that resilience really stands out as something that's very important to me.

"Another thing that I'm very proud of is that we have the statement on climate change. That was one of the things that we know everyone's affected by it, but women and girls in underdeveloped countries are especially impacted. And so having that statement, and it goes beyond just having a statement because that statement includes actions."

Facing challenges as president

"There were disappointments; there were things that I thought that I was missing. And when I would feel down about something or not so positive, thankfully, my husband was there for me, my family. But also it was so important interacting with our Headquarters staff because they kept me going many times. … It was important for me not to disappoint the members of Zonta, our club presidents, our district governors, our board. It was important for me to be that light, and so that was a strength to me was all of the members and saying I can't be down for very long, because I have to be that model and that leader for the organization."

"There was another thing that kept me going, and that was reading about the share your stories—the things that came in from the clubs. Because, as I said, we were all facing challenges; but then being able to read what was happening in various parts of the world, that was like, 'OK, we've got to keep going.' It reenergized me, and so I so appreciate getting those share your stories."

What Sharon has added to her 'toolkit of leadership powers'

"I feel I'm a stronger spokesperson for Zonta. Having experienced what I experienced has just emphasized and made me really want to get out there and be that spokesperson, and really show what is needed for women and girls around the world. … I feel different today than I did two years ago, when I took on being the role of president. I really do feel that I am a stronger spokesperson."

How Zonta has contributed to educating girls globally

"I've always viewed that education is the key to success and not everyone is going to have the book education, but there are other means—life skills education. But we know that if a woman can move into a position of decision-making of policy [and] policy changing, it can have that lasting effect. … The Young Women in Public Affairs Awardees, who are talking about social issues. They have these perspectives, and we want those to grow, to become integrated into society and for all of our awardees to take on these positions of making decisions to changing policy. And that's where you get the lasting change.

"Another aspect with education is that we have been looking with our international service projects to make sure that they have their comprehensive program because we know that if there's an issue it is multifaceted. And so, education is included with our international programs and projects. … I'm so pleased that we've been able to incorporate education into our international service projects. But also the recognition that we get from our own education programs and having our awardees joining Zonta and continuing to be engaged, I think it's their role models and every time that we have an awardee, they are a role model for the next generation and that's something that is very important."

Favorite memory of the 2020-2022 Biennium

The site visit to Peru was truly a highlight for the biennium for me. And partly because I was the one who brought it forward to vote on as a project, and having looked at the different projects back two and a half years ago; this one was one that really stood out because it was a comprehensive program. It was involving the health, it was involving the schools and so on. That just added to the importance to me and the impact."

The current state of gender equality

"With the pandemic, in so many ways, we've heard about the setback. Many schools were closed for a year and the impact of that is probably greater than the one year that we went through. And so, the challenge is really, how do we get to that gender equality when the horizon is not near term the horizon is longer term. … We know that there are so many differences around the world. … I think the challenge is how do you collectively make progress? We do see progress, which is very positive. It makes you keep going and saying this is what we need to do. But it's challenging to think about that long term and how do we get to that that point, because it is not here; it's far away."

How the founders might react to Zonta today

"I think our founders would be proud of the organization that it is still strong in its mission, that we still have that focus on how we help women [and] girls gain the skills to work outside the home. That was one of the first things that they did, is how do we help women to go into the workplace? And they saw that importance of an education, so we have the education programs. They would be very proud that we have our education programs. They also had early service projects, and so I think seeing what we are doing today with our education, as well as with our UN agencies that they would be happy. They would be proud and I think we should be proud that we are working and walking in their footsteps."

How clubs managed changes during COVID-19

"The connection of fellowship and care for each other has been very important to figuring out how do we help each other. We have different circumstances around the world. Our clubs have encountered different things. And so, it's important to emphasize that fellowship and care and concern within the organization. … I feel, overall, we have weathered it and have supported and found ways in which to communicate and to help."

How Zonta will ensure relevancy

"Serving as role models and sharing our experiences are still important to young people, because we faced hurdles and if we can lower that hurdle for someone else it's important. … We need to be that good listener of that young person, we need to say what our mission is, we need to show how we help women and girls."

What's next

Now that her presidency has concluded, Sharon plans to enjoy relaxing and spending time with her family. She and her husband, Loren, also have plans to finish some house projects and expand their vineyard.

In addition to continuing her involvement with Zonta, Sharon accepted a role on the Dean's Advisory Council at the University of Missouri's College of Engineering. She will also be on Mizzou Engineering's Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity Alumni Advisory Council.

"I will be going back to Missouri periodically to be there with the university and to help shape some of the things that are happening at that college. It was important for me because that's where I got my beginnings and I wanted to continue to help the university. So education continues to be in the forefront."

Last words

"First, I want to say what an honor and a privilege it has been to serve as president of Zonta International and the Zonta Foundation for Women. During the last two years, my knowledge of Zonta has grown and one of the things that I haven't mentioned yet was … changing from Zonta International Foundation to the Zonta Foundation for Women. I think that was an important thing for our organization and so I'm very proud of that.

"I feel like these two years have just strengthened that giving back commitment and I again put my vision out there, that I would like to see us achieve gender equality in our lifetime. It's a big challenge out there, but let's be bold. Let's embrace that challenge fulfills our founders' vision. Because, together, we can do it. I'm just inspired to continue and I'm again just so honored to be able to have served as Zonta's international president for the last two years."

Watch Sharon's Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories session: