Thursday, May 15, 2014

When Women Lead: 5 Powerful Women in 1 Room

Oh, the stock images one finds
when you search "women leaders"...
Recently on campus, I had the honor to attend the panel When Women Lead: Insights and Experience from Women in Power. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, the first woman to head Harvard and the fifth to head an Ivy League Institution, introduced the panel. It was moderated by Karen Gordon Mills, former Administrator of the US Small Business Administration. The three speakers were Jill Abramson, former Executive Editor of the New York Times; Edith Cooper, Executive Vice President and Global Head of Human Capital Management at Goldman Sachs; and Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California and former Secretary of Homeland Security.

This panel’s message about the importance of women leaders is particularly poignant in the wake of Jill Abramson’s dismissal from the Times for calling out unequal pay at the newspaper. I haven’t done a lot of research on this recent development, but I think it’s terrible that the Times would fire an employee for criticizing its practice of pay inequity (which is illegal, by the way). Although the Times’ behavior doesn’t surprise me – historically, the paper never really aligned its with feminism – it saddens me that such an important corporation would engage in this sort of discrimination.

However, it heartens me to know that people like Abramson do exist, who are willing to denounce their employers at risk to their own careers. It also gives me hope that someone so high-profile is being vocal about this issue, and bringing pay inequity and the Times’ practice of it to light. I hope that she proves to be an example to other women who are being paid less than their male colleagues, and serves as a warning to other employers paying their women workers unfairly.

At the panel, Abramson said that “women are very good because we have to be” when it comes to navigating workplaces and situations where being male is the norm. I thought that was a powerful statement to make. Women who have made it into leadership positions have had to work harder than their male counterparts to make it where they are, to fight past institutional and casual sexism from employers as well as colleagues. Of course we have to be good at what we do. If we’re not, we have less of a chance than the men we’re competing with.

When they began to discuss whether women in leadership conduct themselves differently than men, I thought it was interesting that all three unequivocally agreed that they do. Abramson discussed how she was in the first class of first-years who lived in Harvard Yard along with the male students, and how learning how to live in such a male-dominated world helped her in the similarly androcentric world of journalism. “How to navigate that type of situation where you aren’t the majority, that everyone isn’t like you, is important, and I do think women are good at that,” she said.

Cooper said that there is “no doubt, in my mind” that women lead differently. She was particularly adamant that women listen and adapt much better than men do, and that “I often want to take out notes” because there is “so much to learn” from other leaders who are women. I have to admit that I’ve often felt the same way about a lot of the women I sit in class with, as well as those who are my professors. I’m privileged to spend time with so many wonderful women who lead student groups, larger organizations, and various other bodies with strength and dignity.

I was amused when Napolitano shared how when she was running for attorney general of Arizona, a reporter asked her “Do you intend to run as a woman?” Although biology limited Napolitano’s choice in whether she would run as a man or woman, she does feel that growing up as women in America gives women different life experiences, and that informs how women formulate their “priorities and vision.” She and Abramson also talked about the importance of all-women spaces within larger male-dominated leadership structures, and how these sorts of gendered spaces help women feel more confident as leaders.

However, I do hope that we soon come to the day when women leaders no longer have to participate in all-women spaces, and when panels like this will be thought of as quaint and even sexist for its single-gender focus. If we want to live in a more equitable society where women and men can access the same opportunities, women should enter positions of leadership, whether of the New York Times, Homeland Security department, or Goldman Sachs. They bring unique qualities to the job, whether informed by their gender and sex or not. 

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