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What Changes, When Women Lead?


While the next Congress includes more women than ever before, the sexual ratio remains way below 50-50. And that applies not just to electoral politics, but to the ranks of government officials. Yes, we've seen three women as secretary of State, but what about the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies? Important, argues Jane Harman, the president of our host today - the Woodrow Wilson Center - not just as demographic justice, but because women lead differently.

So give us an example from your life on the battlefield, or the boardroom. How do women lead differently - 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll take questions from the audience here at the Wilson Center as well.

Prior to her job here, Jane Harman served nine terms in Congress - from California's 36th District - and served as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

JANE HARMAN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And thanks very much for being our host today.

HARMAN: We're delighted to host this. I - by the way - I'm the first president and CEO of the Wilson Center who happens to be a woman. And we do have women in all of our programming. Today, we have me. But I will try to be as substantive as possible because I know how much it matters to have a woman's voice as part of the conversation, on every issue.

CONAN: I have to begin, though, with reports that you may be on the short list to leave here as - be - under consideration to be the next director of Central Intelligence.

HARMAN: I'm very happy here. And by the way, there are 16 intelligence agencies; four of which, at the moment, are headed by women. I think 50 percent is a good number since we are over 50 percent of the talent pool. And why not use all the talent pool of America, for leadership jobs and also, for any other kind of leadership initiative - not everyone who leads, is in a job. But at any rate, I'm very happy here, and we'll see what the president does. I'm pleased he was re-elected. There are big problems - as we've discussed, in the prior two segments - that confront him.

CONAN: Why is it important? What element of leadership do bring in - women bring to the job, that is different?

HARMAN: Well, women don't always lead differently. Some women lead the same. But women bring - as Barbara Jordan, a former, and beloved, member of Congress from Texas - as she said, a broader lens. I think in more cases than not - not in every case - women are the support systems, and the caregivers, and the protectors of the nest. And when you have to be half-awake all night - listening to a baby cry, or worrying if your mother is OK in some health care setting, or worrying about your husband's something - and at the same time, you have a big job, you have a broader lens.

And so I think that helps us. And I watched women lead, in Congress. I watched a small number grow into a bigger number. And it is thrilling to think that 20 percent of the Senate is now female; not that percent of the House. But a shoutout to New Hampshire, the all-female state; where there is a female governor, two female senators, and the House delegation is female. Yo!


HARMAN: That was not big applause for something historic. Come on.


CONAN: As you looked - as you came into Congress, as you looked towards exemplars, who did you follow as a model?

HARMAN: Well, that was very clear. She wasn't in Congress, when I was elected; but she became a good friend of mine when, in the '80s, I was council to the Democratic platform committee, And she was Geraldine Ferraro. I thought she was an extraordinary leader, first - ever - woman nominated on a major-party ticket. She was the vice presidential nominee in 1984 - for those of you who have forgotten that, in some way. But she had it all, I thought. And that campaign was a rugged campaign, and they lost badly. But she stayed in the game. She tried to come back - well, she had to give up her House seat, to run for vice president; something I actually did, to run for governor of California, which I lost. And then I came back to the House. But Gerry tried to come back twice, to be senator from New York; didn't happen.

But even at the end, after battling cancer for 12 years - I remember the election night of 2010. I looked up on my TV, and there was Geraldine Ferraro on television - in her last months, on one of the election commentary channels - I think it was Fox, actually - fighting it out. And it was just so moving.

CONAN: There are some who would say, we've seen examples of women in political leadership; and say, was Margaret Thatcher different?

HARMAN: I didn't know Margaret Thatcher. Interestingly, she was interviewed by Laura Liswood - someone who started something called the Council of Women World Leaders, which has now migrated to the Wilson Center. It is the group of women who head countries. And at the time it was started - in the mid-'90s - Thatcher said she would take the interview, but only after every other woman head of a country was interviewed. There were eight at the time. There are now 20; we're getting up there. There have been 49. And a woman may soon be elected in South Korea, so then it will be 21.

But at any rate, Thatcher's origins were certainly not unusual. She was a grocer's daughter. How she came to be so fierce in politics, is unknown. That quality is useful, at that level. And very few people - female or male - have that quality.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation; 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Our guest is Jane Harman - director, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center. And let's start with Susan. And if I remember - I'm on a different computer today - Susan is on the line with us from San Rafael, in California.

SUSAN: Good afternoon, fans of you both. My comment is - I'm 55, and a former executive of an insurance company. And I think that what women bring to the table - are about being consensus builders, and better listeners. And I think those two things are really linked.

My experience with men, in the executive workforce - and this would be even at the executive leadership level - is that they listen only to a certain point. And if their point isn't being supported, they tend to stop listening. And I think women grow up differently. It may be - even genetic. It starts on the playground, where we build better relationships because we listen more, and we enjoy sharing more. And I think that consensus-building is really, the critical feature. I'll take your reply off the air.

CONAN: All right. Susan, thanks very much for the call.

HARMAN: Well, I agree, but I don't think you can generalize that to all women. I'd say more women do that. Women are problem-solvers in the rest of their - the rest of our lives. And I saw women, in Congress, trying very hard to solve problems; women in both parties, in Congress, trying to solve problems. Maybe it is a male trait - you know, whatever; but a lot of - many males tend to fight more - you're right - listen less and I'd say, solve problems less.

I'll just tell you a funny story. Pat Schroeder, who was a longtime congresswoman from Denver, Colorado, and coined the phrase "Teflon President" for Ronald Reagan - about Ronald Reagan, which has stuck to him ever since, although Tef - nothing sticks to Teflon...


HARMAN: ...was sitting with me in the House, late one night in the '90s, during what I called the reign of Newt. Newt Gingrich was then the speaker, and there were late-night votes. And males were yelling at each other, on the House floor. And Pat sort of nudged me and she said, I know what let's do. Let's give them all estrogen shots.


HARMAN: And I don't think there's a medical answer to this. But I do think the caller is right - that women solve problems. And I wish Congress solved more problems. The paradigm, sadly, in politics now is to blame the other side for not solving the problem; rather than work with them, to solve the problem. Why is that? Because politically, that works. We saw that in this campaign. And hopefully, we are now in Obama 2.0 and Boehner 2.0; and we're going to solve problems - not just the fiscal cliff, but a lot of other problems.


CONAN: Let's go to Aubrey, Aubrey with us from Jacksonville.

AUBREY: Hi. I'm an officer in the Navy. And I've experienced a lot of circumstances when I've seen women lead in the way that is natural for many of us; where we're very concerned about the people under us, and their family and their personal lives. And I've been told by superiors in the past, that I need to lead more like a man and not ask about those - questions; not care about those things. But in a job where I go to war with these people - you know, we deploy with them; I'm with them all the time. And in order to effectively lead them in their professional lives, I feel like I need to understand more about their personal lives; and that gives me an advantage. And a lot of the men that are leading next to me, don't see that.

I also wanted to say that your guest, she said that she was in a position that she also happens to be the first - or, excuse me, the first of whatever she is, and she also happened to be a female. And I really appreciate that because I think it's important that we get to where we're going, and that we know just to say, guess what? I did this, and I'm a woman.

HARMAN: Hear, hear. Let me just add to that, though. When you get there, you've got to help the women coming behind. Madeleine Albright, former secretary of State, beloved friend of the Wilson Center - and me, personally - is quoted as saying, there's a cold place in hell for women who don't help women. And there are a lot of women out there who don't help women.

As for leadership traits in the military, I have the highest respect for you, and for those who serve. Thank you for your service. I spent my time in - nine terms in Congress, on all the major security committees. I represented a part of Los Angeles, California, where our intelligence satellites are made. I think the guys who are giving you that counsel are just dead wrong. And I think the future of the military is going to be a much more human-friendly place. "Don't ask, don't tell" was the beginning. We have to embrace the diversity among us. We have to understand that a - regular and extensive and repeated deployments are very hard on human beings. We've seen a lot of people break under that pressure - sadly - in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And boy, do I salute the service of women alongside men. And I have noticed that a lawsuit has been filed about letting women have positions in combat roles - which would enable them to be promoted. I certainly support the promotion of women in the military, and think there are women who deserve to be four stars.

CONAN: Aubrey, may I ask you...

AUBREY: Thank you.

CONAN: ...a question?


CONAN: I've read that the infantry officer has two priorities: first, to make sure that the troops get fed before he does; and then second, to make sure that their feet are dry and clean so that they can perform in the field. What would be the equivalent in the Navy?

AUBREY: (Laughter) I think in the Navy, the equivalent would be that they ate well; and that they got enough sleep to stay on their watch, because we stand 24 hours a day. The ship never sleeps.

CONAN: Aubrey, thanks very much, appreciate it. We are talking with Jane Harman - director, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center; a former member of Congress, representing California's 36th District as a Democrat, and former chair of the House Intelligence Committee. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's get a question from the mic here, at the Wilson Center.

JOSEPH SPERING: Hello. My name is Joseph Spering(ph). I am working in journalism in the D.C. area. And I have a question concerning the promotion of anyone. When you focus merely either on skin color or sex, there is a danger that you fail to look towards the skill set of the person involved, be it male or female. I just see that there is a possible danger that people say: We need 50 men; we need 50 women. And so they hire - appropriately - 50 men and 50 women; but they don't necessarily look at the skill sets of the individuals involved. And so - although in some cases, there may be 60-40, 70-30, one way or the other; I don't see that as a - necessarily as a problem, as long as people are looking towards the skills sets and the abilities; rather than the ethnic origin, or the gender, of the person involved.

HARMAN: Well, I agree with that. You're talking, basically, about quotas. And historically, in certain circumstances, quotas may have been important. The goal is to get beyond quotas. We're still litigating in this country about quotas - comes up a lot in politics, especially internationally, where there is not a history of electing women. And it's very interesting - I was in Tunisia, observing the election for parliament last year. And Tunisia has what's called a zipper law, which is - requires that on various party slates, every other name has to be female. It doesn't say how many have to be elected, but every other name has to be female. And in that election, 30 percent of the people elected were female.

In Egypt, which had no law, no quotas - no nothing - women basically lost almost all seats in the parliament. The parliament has been dissolved since, but it went from 64 to five. So figuring out how to get women started is important, but I totally agree that competition based on merit, and not just for gender but for ethnicity, is the way we all win. And a society is better if everyone in the society has opportunity but also is required to be excellent.

Thom Friedman makes a big point - recently. Thom Friedman, the columnist, who wrote his first major book, "From Beirut to Jerusalem," at the Wilson Center, and who has been here many times, makes the point that average isn't good enough anymore. Excellence - excellent is what we need. And there are many women out there who are excellent; and who should have opportunity, wherever they are - all over the world - to be leaders of countries, be leaders of legislatures, and be leaders of major businesses.

CONAN: Email from Kelly in San Antonio: I'm eager to hear this discussion because I'm male and have had the opportunity, in recent years, to work for a woman-owned and operated business. Women were in every position above me - from the owner, to the accountant, to my managers. One thing I realize was that despite my compensation having been relatively minimal for my workload, I had no desire to look elsewhere and always enjoyed working. I came to realize this was because the women in charge did not have - uh, measuring contests, I will call that - they just got it done.


CONAN: I am eager to see women run the world - or at least, America. They don't have as much of a need to prove themselves, or to win each battle to have the last word. They just get it done. Bring on the women.

HARMAN: Oh, love this guy. And Neal, the reason you look so good is because Sue Goodwin is sitting over there, making you look good.

CONAN: My executive producer.

HARMAN: There's a little sign on my desk here, that says, "The best man for the job is a woman." Women do well leading - leading in all endeavors. Many women do well; some women don't do well. Some women, as I said, don't help women coming behind them. And you have to understand - this applies to men, too, but it really applies to women - that it's lonely up there. And you become a bigger target. And you have to take risks; know that when you fail, failure can be your friend, can make you stronger. And darn it, help those behind you.

Got to tell you a story: I have four little grandchildren, and the oldest of whom is female - the younger three are male. And she has announced - Lucy has announced that my other two children, who are getting married soon, may have children. But they all have to be male. So I said, Lucy, why is that? Honey - you know - you're 6 years old. Don't you want to have girls in our family? Absolutely not. I want to be the only girl. And Lucy hasn't learned Jane Harman's leadership lessons yet.


CONAN: Jane Harman is director, president and CEO here, at the Woodrow Wilson Center. A pleasure, as always. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.