Women’s Leadership: Transforming Self, Community and Country

U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Pamela E. Bridgewater gave this lecture on June 6, 2013 at the University of the West Indies. I thought I would share it with you. You can also find it on the U.S. Embassy website at http://kingston.usembassy.gov/sp_06062013.html.

Good evening and my thanks to the organizers of this evening’s forum: The Mona School of Business & Management, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, and the Women’s Leadership Initiative, Principal Gordon Shirley, my friend Minna Israel – thank you for inviting me.  To my colleague ambassadors and members of the diplomatic and consular corps; the students of the University of the West Indies, staff of the U.S. Mission in Jamaica, friends all, good evening.

Challenges Facing Women Executives was the topic that the organizers proposed to focus on.  And let me say from the onset that females execute at all levels – at home, in the community, in the office and in the board room.  In fact, we execute this or that — household budgets, shopping, getting children to school, caring for ageing parents, hiring and firing in an office setting, — you get the picture.

As an introduction, you heard Denise Herbol, the Mission Director for USAID, share her observations about some of the cultural challenges women face in male-dominated societies, and the Embassy’s Public Affairs Officer Yolonda Kerney speak of her experiences in managing work-life balance and some of the issues working mothers face.  I thank them for speaking so candidly and sharing these personal experiences and I know we’ll delve more into these challenges at the conclusion of my presentation.

Recently the New York Times published an article examining the percentages of female executives among Fortune 500 corporations in the United States.   They found that women make up only 16 percent of directors at Fortune 500 companies, 4 percent of chief executives at Standard & Poor’s 500 companies, and fewer than 10 percent of chief financial officers at S&P 500 companies.  On Wall Street a small but increasing number of traders and executives are women, but still only 3 percent of hedge fund assets are managed by women.

Although there are fewer hedge funds run by women, a recent Harvard University study found that those hedge funds headed by female executives  outperformed funds run by men.
Another study of retail investors found that men traded 45 percent more than women in their own accounts, but earned 2.65 percent less.   Outside the investing and trading sphere, there are also scores of studies about how women enhance the organizational environment.  If, and I emphasize, IF, there really is such a thing as “a female style of leadership” evidently it can yield better performance — a recent review of the S&P 1500 index found that corporations led by women performed better, that is to say, they yielded higher profits.  In academia, universities led by women had higher rates of matriculation than universities led by men.

Now my intent is not to have a battle of the sexes.  We don’t need that fight as there’s enough to do simply as females, but note please that some scholars and advocates for women do not consider the study of differences between men and women to be legitimate. To them, such research is insulting because it sets up the idea that women perhaps require different treatment.

But for those who had any lingering doubts about women’s abilities to lead corporations and organizations and produce stellar results, those results are in and the survey says:  there is nothing wrong with women’s innate abilities to lead.  So why are there so few women executives?

Might there be issues in academic preparation?  Men and women who aspire to executive leadership often choose business as their academic discipline, so let’s look at the statistics:  According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, in 2012, 43 percent of people who took the business school admissions test were women.  Last year more than 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the United States were awarded to women.  In 2010, the number of Ph.Ds awarded to women in the United States was greater than the number of Ph.Ds awarded to men for the first time in our history.  So when it comes to academic preparation, there is certainly a strong cadre of women preparing themselves to be executives.  So what exactly is the problem, and why aren’t more women rising to the top of their fields?  This is where the conflict lies in seeking a remedy to the problem of too few women executives – we can’t agree on the cause of the problem. Depending on which rationale you believe, the remedy differs.

The first explanation is plain ole sex discrimination. Women in some fields entering the work force are sometimes met with overt hostility and resistance.  I have experienced the resistance, the wonder, and the “how did she get here ahead of me” syndrome.

And then, there’s the opposite approach of overly benevolent attitudes that are patronizing and can do as much harm as outright discrimination.   But remember, hostility is not required for discrimination to exist. Stereotypes can create different or lower expectations for women even when no hostility exists.   Some researchers tell us there’s not so much an issue of resentment or bias toward women, so much as a preference for men.

We must be aware that subtle forms of discrimination confront us daily.  Various means of hampering and slowing down the process of women’s development have to be acknowledged and brought to the attention of managers or supervisors.

In her introduction, our USAID Director told us about cultural prejudices against women that made it difficult for her to do the job the USG sent her to do. In some cases, people just are more comfortable if a man is in charge, even when that man’s female deputy is clearly the brains of the operation.

Sometimes the issue is compounded by the added layer of racism. Too frequently people become uncomfortable in speaking about racism, but let’s be honest, we all know it exits –subtly or overtly, and if we all are honest with ourselves we would do well to engage in a bit of self introspection and seek to determine if we hold views, impressions, prejudices that are race tinged.  Yes, all of us of every race or ethnicity should engage in such introspection from time to time.

I recall that when I arrived in South Africa on a diplomatic posting, I discovered that I was the only African American officer at our very large embassy in Pretoria when I accepted my assignment there in 1990. But as I prepared for the assignment, determining whether there were other African Americans or females did not enter into my equation.  In fact I didn’t even think about it or consider it important.

I was one of only two females in the predominately male political reporting section which was a very large section owing to the nature of our engagement and dialogue — the other female officer an entry level officer, whom I developed a wonderful relationship with and shared mentoring tidbits.  And as I developed a special relationship with Mr. Nelson Mandela as the officer assigned to cover the ANC, which was not at that time a political party but a liberation movement, our mission and our country would be the beneficiaries of the unprecedented access I gained to the ANC and to the dialogue and cooperation that our embassy developed and the positive working relationships we forged that helped with that historic transition.  It takes time to diminish these notions of racism and/or male superiority, but I am living proof that we have and continue to make progress. And that’s a very good thing.

A second explanation of why there are so few female executives is more complex, and theorizes that male-driven culture does not allow women to succeed. Women’s values and approaches can be different, and when entering the work force women may find that the male culture is not to their taste or are driven off. Those women who do succeed adapt to the “male culture.”  In other words, women need to become “like men” to become corporate executives, or so the theory goes.  I have never subscribed to that notion or to the theory that there are necessarily male or female solutions to problems, but there are effective and ineffective solutions to problems that both men and women must utilize.

I have had outstanding male and female bosses — Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaps to mind — and the thing they had in common was tremendous attention to detail, an insistence on being prepared, and a willingness to listen, energy, drive and hard, smart work not being afraid to stand up to a wrong and discipline individuals who could benefit from a positive intervention. Good leadership is not the exclusive domain of male or female.

Another issue at the forefront impacting female executives is having and caring for children.  Although more men today are happily involved in child rearing more so than their parents or grandparents, it is still women who function as the primary caretakers of their children.  This is the struggle for “work-life balance” that Yolonda spoke about in her introduction.  Gone are the days when we tried to pretend that small children do not need their mothers, even when their mothers have returned to work after birth.  It’s for this reason I am so proud to say that every U.S. Embassy and Consulate have clean, clearly identifiable lactation stations where our employees who are nursing mothers may pump breast milk.

The competing demands of work and childcare continue well beyond infancy, so we see the need to care for children is often greatest when women are in their 30s and 40s, a period that is the prime time of their careers.  Some managers – men and women – fear that working mothers are on “the mommy track” and that just because they have children, they are less committed to their careers. This could not be farther from the truth for so many women who juggle the competing demands of motherhood and career, and thrive with both.

Some women choose to focus on their children either by not competing for promotions, or working part time, or leaving the workforce for a period of time.  All of these approaches working mothers take are legitimate, and each woman has to make the decision that is best for herself and her family. But I caution executives and managers not to make assumptions about a working mother’s priorities, rather, let her performance and initiative inform you of her intentions and her potential to rise.  Just think about it — doesn’t it make sense to think that a woman who has raised well adjusted, happy off spring under challenging circumstances might just bring something extra of value to the work environment?

Support for each of these theories can be found in the repeated studies.  No matter which premise you believe, the end result is that men significantly outnumber women at the highest levels of commerce, and women in corporate America are paid less than men performing the same work. I must say that when I went to work at one of my university teaching positions, I entered with a salary higher than the males on the faculty (I was the first female to be hired on that faculty); but, I had negotiated my salary prior to accepting the position and the university had recruited ME based on my qualifications and the needs of the Department.  We soon over came the male disgruntlement when word got out about my salary and became wonderful colleagues, and friends, to this day.

I must share that on my first day joining that faculty, I ventured from my office building on a new campus to find the student union, and the chairman asked me to bring him some coffee back.  I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback because I had to first find my way to the student center building and then get his coffee and lug it back to our office building.  I didn’t particularly like this because, right or wrong, I thought is he having me to fetch coffee because I am a female?  So I tried to settle a bit and simply said, “Hey, why don’t YOU come along with me and show me around and we’ll share a coffee together.”

As the first and only female on the faculty, I was more than a little novelty, and there was a bit of green eye as both male and female students signed up for my classes in numbers as they had heard about my work and activities about the THEN young prof from another university where I had taught.  Well they flocked in and many flunked out.  Performance pays and that’s what won the colleagues over and the students’ respect, which I am really proud to say, continues to this day as they stay in touch wherever I am over the world.  I don’t like to dwell on problems without considering solutions, so I want to here offer some suggestions and tools that have helped me on my journey.

We’ve talked about various data relative to executive level work in the traditional business environment, but  but let me give a few personal reflections about the United States Foreign Service which is under the personnel management of the U.S. Department of State.   Change in recruiting and hiring practices for our diplomatic corps came as a directive from the Office of Equal Opportunity.  This office had been mandated to do so by the Secretary of State who recognized the need to make opportunities for employment available to females and minorities and that our diplomatic efforts around the world should reflect better the makeup of our increasingly diverse society.  Such a policy has enriched our Foreign Service and strengthened our country’s ability to engage with people around the globe.

In 1982, only seven of the 134 United States ambassadors were women, compared to 43 today.   In 1985, just 3 percent of senior Foreign Service officers were women, but in 2010 more than half the new recruits for the Foreign Service were women, and we expect that they will rise to the highest ranks of our diplomatic corps.  We see repeatedly that when women are allowed to compete, they succeed.

Now to continue with solutions.  First, find and be a mentor.  I was fortunate in that I had several individuals along the way who mentored me, and most of them were men primarily because there are so many more men in our Foreign Service.  But the females that I encountered along the way were positive role models to whom I could turn for advice and guidance. Further, it was actually a male senior officer and later Ambassador at the Department of State who approached me about the Foreign Service when I was a university professor.  He worked in the Office of Equal Opportunity I mentioned earlier, and every time he saw me he told me how few people of color were in the U.S. diplomatic corps, and how even fewer women there were.  He just stayed on topic and kept reaching out to me.  I finally was convinced.   And I take mentoring seriously, continuing to reach out.  Outreach must be more than a word — it must be a deed.

Mentoring is an extremely effective management tool and he benefits can be immeasurable.  We have implemented in the Foreign Service a formal mentoring program, pairing seasoned staff members with aspiring officers.  This is not just diversifying your workplace, but it is a good and effective managerial tactic.   I am so proud to have several people I am proud to call “mentee.” We should not be afraid to give a chance to our colleagues when we are in positions to do so.

During my tenure as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs I subsequently was moved up to Principal Deputy and often served as Acting Assistant Secretary.  I had responsibility for personnel issues and identifying persons for key positions.  I saw the list of ambassadorships opening and thought of a superb officer who had the requisite language skills, and other management and leadership experience.  The individual happened to be a woman, and I reached out to her as I considered her ideal as a possible candidate.

She couldn’t believe I would think of her and was shocked and surprised, happily and when I told her I needed her response quickly, like in over 24 hours as the White House needed candidates to consider, she phoned me back the next day and say, well if you think I can do it, I’ll go for it.  And the rest as they say, is history.  She was nominated, confirmed and served in an outstanding manner in her first ambassadorial post.  She said so often, she wanted to be like me and could not express her gratitude in my belief that she could do this job.

Affirmative action is often a testy subject, but I want to be clear that it does not mean taking jobs away from males or other females.  It gives the opportunity for jobs to categories of employees who have not historically had a chance to compete for those jobs.  Competition is the key.   Additionally, executive and professional women must network, network, network.  We must network not only with other women’s groups, but with our male partners.  We cannot and should not further our positions of equality in isolation from men.  Professional women must network across class and socio economic lines – this is key to learning and benefiting from the experiences of others.  We needn’t spend precious time inventing a wheel that is already operational.  Please always remember that we can learn something from everyone, even if it is something we ought NOT do. Value and respect everyone and remember that it never hurts to say a kind word or share a smile. All of these actions are elements of mentorship.

Secondly, right at the beginning of your career, examine the courage of your convictions.  We all have to be willing to take some risks, and it may be that you have to take an unpopular position because you really believe it’s the right thing to do.  My accepting an assignment in South Africa as an African American who grew up in a segregated community and attended segregated schools, was a risk — was I ready to experience this kind of treatment all over again?  I have a reputation as being willing to have open, frank conversations that some other people just aren’t willing to have.

And that’s what I did in South Africa, and that’s one of the many reasons I had a successful and very productive tour, including two promotions during a six-year tour. Being open and frank might be a bit unusual for a diplomat!  But it’s a core conviction I hold, and I have taken that with me during my career as a professor and a diplomat.  Remember it is not what you say, but how you say it.  Figure out what is core for you, and hold on to that – it has served me very well.

Finally, realize that transformation and growth are a natural part of any career. Very little in our lives stays static, so we have to decide how we will embrace and guide change.  I was sent to South Africa during that country’s period of transformation to help forge a new relationship between its post-racial government and the United States.  I am proud of that work, but the things of which I am most proud in my career are the comments from girls and women where I have served who tell me I inspire them.

It’s why the U.S. Embassy brings Dr. Mae Jemison, the first woman of color in space, to Jamaica to tell little girls it’s ok to love science and when a young girl says she believes she can become an ambassador for her country because she’s met me and has proof it can be done, that is the most beautiful transformation ever – transformation of belief in what is possible.  Everyone won’t like what you do or how you do it, or maybe they won’t like you; but you will know what’s right, and in their hearts, they will know also.

The process of work place and self transformation must be ongoing and represent a decisive and steady break from the past.  Breaking from poor past practices is more than a break, it is reforming to travel the same paths more efficiently and developing new paths.  Corporations hoping to be competitive and successful have to look at their employees in a new way.  Transformation, my sisters (and my brothers), requires a few things I consider important:

Everyone within the company, firm, corporation or organization must share complementary core values; the organization should balance legitimate and essential needs for profit and growth with concern for the environment, for human welfare and fulfillment and for the health and well being of all is stakeholders. I mention here the importance of health, and this is where executives and senior staff have a responsibility again, to set an extremely important example about how we care for ourselves.  We must not be shy about condemning and ending domestic violence against us – it is a violation of our human rights.

Women must fight to ensure that health research and environmental standards address the health of women.  We must ensure that when national decisions are made, economic decision and political decisions that affect our future, that women are at the table.  And around the table, we must be armed with facts about our petitions and positions and be ready to lobby to get them accepted.  We know that physical fitness is equally important to substantive training and mental prowess. Support your staff in setting and meeting health goals.

If we are to transform, we must be able to be flexible and to accommodate rapid change, and generate continuous innovation and creativity; there is no one right way of doing a thing; and we must make every attempt to encourage all members of the organization to be partners rather than individuals who happen to work together.  And while it is important to always respect authority relationships, we know that those in authority now — those executives, those managers, those leaders we look up to and report to — were somewhere else before getting there and that you may well be that person one day sooner or later.  So don’t let statistics, organizational theory or someone’s doubts about you weigh you down or diminish your aspirations. Many women have come before us, we have and will continue to make strides.

I leave you with these thoughts in a poem, “Be Good To You”

Be yourself – Truthfully
Accept yourself – Gratefully
Value yourself – Joyfully
Forgive yourself – Completely
Treat yourself – Generously
Balance Yourself – Harmoniously
Bless yourself – Abundantly
Treat yourself – Confidently
Love yourself – Wholeheartedly
Empower yourself – Prayerfully
Give of yourself – Enthusiastically
Express yourself – Radiantly

Ladies, always keep in mind that when you find ways to transform yourself or your workplace, you then are able to transform community and our world.  I look forward now to taking your questions.

Thank you!

Ambassador Bridgewater speaks on women's leadership at the University of the West Indies on June 6, 2013. (Photo: U.S. Embassy)
U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Pamela E. Bridgewater speaks on women’s leadership at the University of the West Indies on June 6, 2013. (Photo: U.S. Embassy)

4 thoughts on “Women’s Leadership: Transforming Self, Community and Country

  1. The 1995 laws was a reformed version of a similar 1986 law. Unlike other countries’ quota laws, which affect party structure or electoral candidate lists, the Finnish law addresses indirectly elected bodies (nominated by official authorities)—the law does not address popularly elected bodies. The Finnish law heavily emphasizes local municipal boards and other subnational institutions. From 1993 (pre-quota law) to 1997 (post-quota law), the proportion of women on municipal executive boards increased from 25% to 45%. The quota law also affected gender segregation in local governance: before the passage of the law, there had been a gender imbalance in terms of female overrepresentation in “soft-sector” boards (those concerned with health, education, etc.) and female underrepresentation in “hard-sector” boards (those concerned with economics and technology). In 1997, the boards were balanced horizontally. However, areas not subject to quota laws continue to be imbalanced. In 2003, it was determined that only 16% of the chairs of municipal executive boards are female—chair positions in this area are not quota-regulated.


    1. Thank you for this information, which I will share with my colleagues… This rather proves our case for quotas, I think! I appreciate your contribution very much.


    1. You’re most welcome, and thanks for your comment. She is a great mentor herself. I enjoyed working for her for three years or so at the Embassy until I retired. She is very thoughtful, kind and generous – I love her philosophy of life and was honored to be working under someone whom I found very principled.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.