January 31, 2013

Maine Voices: Don't just 'Remember the Ladies' – heed them well

The gender gap in both political and nonpolitical leadership must be closed – for the good of all of us.

By Martha Sterling-Golden

President Obama had just appointed his fifth male chief of staff when the outcry about the lack of women appointees to Cabinet-level positions reached critical mass. There was an opening at the White House because the man who used to have that job will be replacing Timothy Geithner, the outgoing secretary of the treasury.

One woman considered a prime candidate for the Treasury job was former Council of Economic Advisors Chairwoman Christina Romer.

In November, Dan Froomkin wrote about the potential for a woman receiving the nod for Treasury, spotlighting Romer: "(She) championed much greater stimulus spending to spur economic growth and reduce unemployment." But, as recounted in the Washington Post, "Geithner snapped at her that stimulus was like 'sugar,' that its effect was fleeting, and that the White House should focus on reining in the debt instead." She was right.

Romer departed from the CEA post early, and there were stories that CEA colleague Larry Summers had tried to interfere with her access to the president. This would be in keeping with his behavior as part of the Working Group on Financial Matters during Bill Clinton's second term. He famously hounded regulator Brooksley Born out of the inner circle, telling people she was "irascible, difficult, stubborn, unreasonable," because she had the temerity to suggest that allowing the markets to bet against questionable mortgages might not be in the best interests of the economy. She was right.

Freshly minted U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was famously grilled during her midwifery of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- a post she was considered a prime candidate to fill but for which she was never nominated.

She was considered "an outsider" and "meddlesome," undermined by Democratic senators like Chris Dodd, and the financial sector's unofficial lobbyist, Timothy Geithner, who recommended deferring to the top dozen or so bankers in 2009, a move Warren never supported. She was right.

So we must ask, what is going on here? What does our leadership terrain look like in the 21st century?

First, a little context: More than 12,000 individuals have served in Congress since 1789. Two hundred seventy-seven of them have been women, and one-third of that number is in the current class. The Center for American Women and Politics states that, in all, "40 women have held 45 Cabinet or Cabinet-level appointments." Ever.

A recent article by Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst, an organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business, states that "companies with the greatest female representation on boards generate a 50 percent greater return on equity and invested capital than companies with less diverse boards." In a recent study from McKinsey & Co., a global management firm, women rate higher than men in more areas of leadership skill, yet the 50 highest paid executives in the U.S. are all men -- even if their companies are in serious trouble. Only 3 percent of CEOs are women. Worse, the number of women in executive positions has actually dropped over the past 10 years.

Why would we exclude people who have demonstrated exceptional skill in their fields? At the World Economic Forum last Friday at Davos, Switzerland, Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, went on the offensive against barriers to women in leadership.

Sandberg noted that as men become more successful, they are more popular, but the opposite is true of women: "She's great at her job but she's just not as well liked by her peers," or: "She's a bit aggressive."

Indeed, did we not hear these very comments about our U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, when her name was floated as a replacement for outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Indeed, in the recent Senate hearing on Benghazi, the notoriously volatile Sen. John McCain referred to Secretary Clinton's "combative" testimony, rendering the irony nearly palpable.

In the U.S., women make up the majority of the population and it's past time that our presence was more strongly felt in government. On March 31, 1776, just after the British left Boston Harbor, Abigail Adams wrote her famous "Remember the Ladies" letter to her husband, John. What is seldom printed is the final sentence in that paragraph, as follows: "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

On Jan. 24, President Obama appointed former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. We'll take it, but we'll be watching.

Martha Sterling-Golden is a former president of the Women's Campaign School at Yale University, and serves on the advisory board of Emerge Maine, a women's leadership program. She is a native and resident of Maine.

 

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