Harvard community members and guests from the greater Cambridge area packed into Sanders Theatre Monday afternoon to listen to four female leaders from various fields, as they shared their experiences working in positions of authority and reflected on the changing role of women in the workplace.
The panel was comprised of Executive Editor of The New York Times Jill Abramson '76, Global Head of Human Capital Management at Goldman Sachs Edith W. Cooper '83, and President of the University of California system Janet Napolitano. Former Obama administration cabinet member Karen G. Mills '75 moderated the public discussion, which was hosted by University President Drew G. Faust.
“What does power require of women—beyond a thick skin, that is? What does it take to get there?” Faust asked in her opening speech for the event. “What does it take to stay there?”
At the beginning of the discussion, each panelist shared the story of her rise through the professional ranks.
Abramson, who was a member of the first Harvard class in which females were permitted to live in the Yard, spoke about her journey from a being self-described “goofball” to holding the highest-ranked position in The New York Times newsroom. Although she credited a “fortunate coincidence” for her first reporting experience, she also said that women in positions of power must trust themselves.
“To become a leader, you have to be your authentic self,” she said. “We spend an awful lot of effort to sandpaper off supposed rough edges, and maybe I do [have them], but at the end of the day, to lead, you need to make some difficult gut calls—to believe in yourself.”
Cooper agreed with Abramson, and added that besides being authentic, it is also important to know one’s audience and to adapt in order to achieve one’s goals.
All the panelists credited “networks of women” in their respective workplaces not only for advancing gender equity by providing safe spaces and mentorship, but also for strengthening their organizations.
“Difference is not only an edge for an individual once they realize it, but it’s also [an edge] in terms of the outcome,” Cooper said.
Attendee Emily L. Chen '15 said that she was struck by the similarities between the remarks of the panelists, despite the different industries they worked in.
“I think they had very similar overarching themes,” Chen said. “I think it’s very interesting how they all tied together.”
Throughout the discussion, the panelists referenced the experiences and achievements of other notable female figures, from Anita Hill to Hillary Clinton, to the two female journalists recently shot in Afghanistan. Abramson said she consciously chose to place these journalists’ photos “above the fold” of The New York Times’ Saturday paper to highlight their contributions to journalism.
During the question-and-answer portion of the event, audience members who posed questions to the panelists also talked about their own experiences as women in leadership.
“Times have changed. They may not be perfect, but I think my message to all of you today is that we belong,” Mills said.
—Staff writer Quynh-Nhu Le can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff Writer Joanna R. Schacter can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaSchacter.