Drawing laughs and questions from a full audience in the New Library Auditorium, Laura Liswood, senior advisor in Global Leadership and Diversity for Goldman Sachs who interviewed 15 female prime ministers and presidents, spoke on women in leadership last week.
Women in Leadership and Learning (W.I.L.L.), with support from the Bonner Center, which coordinates campus-community outreach programs at the College, and the School of Business, hosted the event, in which Liswood drew on the knowledge from the book and her interviews, and suggested that the low percentage of women in leadership was due to cultural messages.
“My journey started with one of those in-the-shower questions,” she said. “This one (was) what would it be like if there was a woman president of the United States?”
Liswood requested interviews with the leaders, and, to her surprise, all accepted, except Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher said to come back after Liswood had met the other 14.
Liswood did extensive research on the leaders, and a speech coach helped her categorize her questions. Appointments with the leaders stretched on past the allotted times for them, because the women were curious about what Liswood women had said.
Liswood, in response to their curiosity, co-founded the Council of Women World Leaders, based out of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, so that the leaders could meet each other. Every time a woman is elected president, she is invited to join. There are now 29 members.
Liswood highlighted the stereotypes about leaders that correspond with cultural views and practices of men.
Physical appearance plays a role in who is and who is not a leader, Liswood said. Leaders are stereotypically tall, white males in the United States. While in the general population, only 15 percent of men are taller than 6 feet 2 inches, 58 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are 6 feet 2 inches or taller.
“We have this visual image of what a leader looks like,” Liswood said. Warren Harding, for example, had the distinct look of a president, she said, so everyone invested in him. Yet, today historians say he was the worst president ever, she said.
Culturally, children are brought up to believe men should be leaders. While men can be president, the myth for a young woman is still a Cinderella one – cleaning the fireplace, talking to mice, and waiting for prince charming, Liswood said.
On the other hand, in Iceland, where there was a female president, children think only a woman can be president, Liswood said.
In their speech patterns and methods of leadership, women and men take on different characteristics as leaders, Liswood added. To be effective in groups not exactly like them, women may need to adapt.
“I’d like to see nine men running for office, and four or five women doing the same,” she said. In that way, women would not be so scrutinized, and the media may not focus so much on their dress or their hair.
Liswood answered questions from the audience and, in a reception after the lecture, talked with students about their careers.
“I’m very interested in learning about the power of politics, and having passion in what you’re doing,” Jessica Boston, senior psychology major, said. “(The lecture) incited me to keep finding my niche.”
Liswood could relate to some students because she also had not had a plan for her life after graduation. “I envy people who have this plan,” she said.
The daughter of a policeman, she received her master’s from Harvard and her law degree from the California-Davis School of Law. In addition to being co-founder of the council of Women World Leaders, she is a co-founder of the White House Project and is a member of the International Women’s Forum, Leadership America, and commissioner of the City of Seattle Women’s Commission.
“We all (in W.I.L.L.) felt it was very important to see a woman in a leadership status,” Ashley Reichelmann, sophomore secondary education/English and women’s and gender studies, said. “It helps us all to queer our lines of what we see as right and wrong.”