By Rose Ors
In collaboration with Delia Violante, Director, Women in Business Law Initiative, Berkeley Law

April 8, 2019

Janet Napolitano Headshot

Janet Napolitano

There is a palpable change in the conversation on gender equity — the conversation is turning into one of action, and that is changing the faces of our leaders from the board room to the floor of Congress.

In this climate of change, we spoke with Janet Napolitano, whose career is filled with “firsts” — the first woman to serve as Attorney General of Arizona, Secretary of Homeland Security, and now President of the University of California — about women and leadership.

The occasion for our conversation was the first of a series of roundtables organized by Berkeley Law’s Women In Business Law Initiative. During our conversation, Napolitano spoke about why our institutions need women in leadership roles, the unique challenges girls and women face, the importance of programs such as the Women in Business Law Initiative, and what traits we need our leaders to possess.

Rose Ors: Why is it so important that women have leadership positions in our institutions?

Janet Napolitano: Women are extremely talented and bring skills and experiences that are unique and valuable. Not having women leaders is like an artificial limitation on the talent pool. Not having women in leadership roles silences the dynamic and exceptional perspectives and contributions that women bring to the table.

Rose Ors: What do women leaders bring that is unique?

Janet Napolitano: Here is an example: Many women are working mothers. This experience gives women a keen awareness of the challenges of this dual role, a role that few men share. So, in an all-men C-suite, it is far less likely that in thinking about ways to attract and retain the best talent, they consider offering childcare to their employees. A room with women present substantially increases the likelihood that the idea is raised — the same for pay parity and parental leave.

We need voices in leadership roles that drive home the importance of these issues in retaining a diversified talent pool.

Rose Ors: What are some of the factors or obstacles that deter women from actively pursuing leadership roles?

Janet Napolitano: Women have a far greater tendency than men to question their ability when an opportunity opens up. Many women will wonder, ‘Do I have enough experience? Am I ready?’ Most men will say, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’

I have seen this gender difference many times in potential candidates for public office. History shows that women are more likely to be a policy analyst or campaign manager than be the candidate. They self-select out. Fortunately, we are seeing good and healthy changes. But we have a long way to go.

Rose Ors: In Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House? Carolyn Heldman, a professor at Occidental College, explains that when children are seven years old, boys and girls say they want to be president in roughly the same numbers. By the time they’re 15, the number of girls who say they’d like to be president drops off dramatically, as compared to the boys. What role do you think in how we educate our children contributes to this shift?

Janet Napolitano: It may be that it’s hard to aspire to be what you do not see. We have yet to have female president. Having a president who happens to be a woman would be a significant step towards breaking down gender stereotypes. It would change the conversation about leadership, about inclusiveness, about aspirations and goals. And, of course, having a president who is a woman will serve as a model for women and girls.

Another contributing factor is that girls are not raising their hands enough when a leadership opportunity is in front of them. I think schools need to actively encourage girls to be the lead on a school team project or run for student body president. It will require intentionality at all levels of our education system. And it will require time.

We need voices in leadership roles that drive home the importance of these issues in retaining a diversified talent pool.

Rose Ors: Why are programs like Women in Business Law Initiative at Berkeley Law so important for women?

Janet Napolitano: The Women in Business Law Initiative and others like it are important because they encourage women to go for it. The mentoring and networking that occur in these programs provide the support women need to succeed and thrive in their profession.

It’s so important for women who aspire to be in leadership roles to expand their personal networks. The networks and the relationships the Berkeley Law Initiative offers create an active and supportive environment that empowers women to think big.

Rose Ors: How would you define resilience? And how do you develop it?

Janet Napolitano: I think resilience is the ability to take a punch and get back in the ring. When I was in elected politics, I called it ‘earning your calluses’. Developing that kind of thick skin is necessary when you lead. The role comes with lots of challenges. People will not only disagree and criticize you, some attack you — it is par for the course. And you have to listen, respond when appropriate, and move on.

Rose Ors: Is resilience a learned trait?

Janet Napolitano: It’s not something that comes naturally. Resilience comes from getting out of your comfort zone. I think fear of failure has held a lot of women back, and we need to change that mindset.

Rose Ors: What do you think are the most important traits we need in a leader today, male or female?

Janet Napolitano: We need someone with a vision and a gift for communicating his or her vision in a manner that persuades and excites people. Equally important is someone with the intellectual chops to deal with the host of global and national issues that are only mounting in urgency and need solutions. We need someone with excellent judgment, high integrity, and optimism. We are a nation in need of optimism.

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