Leaders from the Treasury, Rolls Royce, NASA and More Discuss Women in Leadership

The expert panel discussed bias, mentors, and women in leadership. Left to right: Charles Bolden, NASA administrator; Salli Frattini, awards show executive producer; Cokie Roberts, moderator and journalist; Anna Han, behavioral scientist; Diane Linen Powell, an adviser to startups and nonprofit organizations; and Rosie Rios, treasurer of the United States; Not pictured: Marion Blakey, president and chief executive officer of Rolls-Royce North America. Photo credit: Maria Bryk/Newseum

April 01, 2016

Although they make up half the population, earn more degrees than their male counterparts, and maintain long tenures in the workforce, women are noticeably absent from paid leadership positions. Whether you’re looking at a CEO, governor, or superintendent, odds are — the statistics show — that a man is in that role.

What are the barriers that prevent women from rising to positions of leadership, and how can the obstacles be overcome?

Those are the questions a panel of experts discussed at the launch of AAUW’s latest research report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, held March 30 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Moderated by journalist, commentator, and author Cokie Roberts, the discussion delved into the panelists’ personal experiences with gender bias and how they’re combating the longstanding misconception that women aren’t cut out to be leaders.

Watch video on YouTube.

“It was January 2010 — probably one of the most consequential times in our economic history — and I told (former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner) that I wanted to highlight the role that women are playing in the economic recovery,” said Rosie Rios, current treasurer of the United States. “At that time, four of the six economic decision makers were women. Here we are one year into the recovery, and we had Sheila Bair at the FDIC, Mary Schapiro at the SEC, Christina Romer at the Council of Economic Advisers, and Elizabeth Warren [as] head of the Congressional Oversight Panel and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”

That conversation led to those women serving on a panel at the Treasury’s inaugural Women in Finance Symposium in March 2010. Six years later, the annual event is still going strong.

Having more women in leadership positions isn’t just about balancing out the boardroom — it’s also smart business.

“You’ve got to remember that women are a competitive advantage,” said Marion Blakey, CEO of Rolls-Royce North America. “Diversity and inclusion is not just altruism. It’s not just because a lot of us believe in it — it also gives you an edge in terms of competing, and it’s fierce out there.”

Charles Bolden, NASA administrator and former astronaut, echoed Blakey’s sentiment.

“If I want NASA to stay number one, I need a diversity of ideas,” Bolden said. “We’re in a battle today with our international partners. It’s not competition the way we think about it — it’s competition of ideas. When you talk about making the impossible possible and turning science fiction into science fact, you can’t take the same people who have done everything, or you’ll never get there.”

But if women are so integral to an organization’s success, why are they missing from leadership roles?

A part of the problem is that some women underestimate themselves, said Anna Han, senior behavioral scientist and policy adviser at the National Institutes of Health.

“Research shows that men are more willing to apply for a job, whether they meet all of the qualifications or not,” Han said. “Women wait until they meet every single qualification, or even better, before they apply. And by the time they do that, women could be overqualified for some jobs. So if you don’t try, you don’t get it.”

Diane Linen Powell, an adviser to start-ups and nonprofit organizations, said that girls and young women need to be encouraged to think big and follow the path of their choosing — be it science, academia, the arts, or something else.

“Set expectations high for little girls, for high school girls, for college girls,” Powell said. “It seems that people who are taught that there’s nothing that they can’t achieve go on to achieve great things.”

As a veteran awards show producer and the first woman to executive produce the Super Bowl halftime show, Salli Frattini has certainly achieved greatness — but not without some challenges along the way.

“Part of my job was working with leagues — the NFL, NBA, and MLB — and very often I was the only woman in a room,” Frattini said. “I welcomed and encouraged women to join me in the room. … As women in leadership roles, it’s our responsibility to look out for each other.”

That kind of interpersonal empowerment and inclusion is essential to closing the gender leadership gap.

Also important? Visible role models.

When her high school history teacher invited Rios to visit his classroom, she saw the potential of having those visible role models.

“He said that he’d realized that in all the years he’s been teaching, he had no images of women on his walls, and he wanted to change that,” Rios said.

When she stepped into that classroom, she saw portraits of Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and herself on the walls.

“It dawned on me: If you had one teacher, or 100 teachers, or 1,000 teachers who did the same thing … it changes the perspective, it changes the awareness — not just for girls but for boys,” Rios said. “We value what we see every day. So if you don’t see it every day, and if you do see it every day, what will that do?”

And when it comes to closing the gender leadership gap, planting those seeds of awareness can make all the difference.

“Awareness and the motivation to change can really (affect) change,” Han said. “I think events like this that are raising awareness — and research shows this — really do work.”


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