What’s it like to be the only woman in the room during corporate board meetings? Or the first woman to chair a financial regulation authority in the midst of an economic crisis? Last week, three groundbreaking leaders – all lawyers by training – came together to talk about their experiences as women affecting change in a male dominated industry.
The event was hosted by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Moderated by Ron Suskind, a journalist and leader of the Center’s Project for Public Narrative, the panel featured:
- Mary Schapiro, past chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission;
- Sheila Bair, past chair of the U.S. Federal Deposit and Insurance Corporation; and
- Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator, former law professor and driving force behind the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Why their words matter
Sitting in the small, quiet venue on the Harvard campus, I was struck by how candidly each panelist spoke about being an outsider throughout her career. Each was often the only or first person with a different perspective, background, class, gender and experience in boardrooms or on committees.
As the legal sector (finally) prioritizes diversity as a valued component of leadership, it might benefit from the insights of Bair, Shapiro and Warren.
Discourse about what will make or break any sector in transition often includes what that some cynically refer to as buzzwords: vision, innovation, trust, values, strategy, diversity. These days, the word is “character”.
“Character” neatly describes what we draw on when determining our personal approach to leadership and our reasons for wanting to affect (what we see as) necessary change, whether we realize it or not.
Regardless of your opinion of their job performance or politics, there is no denying that the panelists – collectively dubbed by Time Magazine as the “Sheriffs of Wall Street” – have character. Each warned of the 2008 recession well before it happened. Each was called upon to reform financial regulation during the crisis. And each continues to draw on their intelligence, experience and courage to try to prevent past mistakes from being repeated.
From Sheila Bair on often being the only woman in the boardroom. “[Sometimes women are worried about] the perception of being a ‘stick in the mud’ – there is one person dissenting and she’s a woman. It can be tough to divide what is [attributable to] gender and what isn’t. Your moral compass will be able to help you determine what is crucial to you.
My only advice is to keep focused on what your job is and what your objective is…if you retreat and say ‘you’re not listening to me because I’m a woman’ it doesn’t move your objective forward. If you focus on whether you’re being discriminated against, you might drive yourself crazy because it can be hard to separate that out in a causal way.”
From Mary Schapiro on what it takes to succeed as a woman in a male dominated industry. “Even if you figure out that gender is the issue in the room, there isn’t much you can do about it.
The way you defeat the stereotypes and the negativity around gender, prejudice and bias is by being very good at what you do.
[You need to be] very clear about where you’re going and why you think the path you’re taking is the right path, so that you can always defend it. At the end of the day, you have to be able to support what you’ve done.
You don’t want to get credit for something because you’re a woman, but you also don’t want it to be ignored. Your goal has to be to be the very best you can be, to bring all of your intellectual firepower and all of your political savvy to every decision you make in order to have it survive.”
On what is holding up the diversification of corporate boards, despite ample evidence that it makes business sense. Bair, who sits on three corporate boards, suggested “the best thing women can do is to help each other to try to open boards up. The [board recruitment] process now is still one that is geared towards the status quo”.
The Project on Public Narrative has posted a video of the discussion on its YouTube channel if you’d like to hear the entire discussion. The event was also covered in a Financial Times article posted on May 11th.
The New Yorker published a profile of Senator Warren its May 4th issue. I suspect that we will hear a lot more from her as the presidential election race heats up.
Sheila Bair has written two books about her experiences as a regulator and corporate board member – one explains the financial crisis and its implications for young adults.