Wrestling with Power

Women's Relationship to Power Across the Political Spectrum

Win or lose, Kamala Harris and Catharine Baker knew going into November’s election that a woman would end up in the positions they sought. Each was among the handful of California candidates to face another woman in a state or national race for political office, with Harris hoping to replace Barbara Boxer as a Democrat in the U.S. Senate and Baker looking for a second term in Sacramento as a Republican representing the 16th Assembly District—home to Saint Mary’s College.

"The perspective is culturally different when you have women at the table rather than a table of men talking about what they perceive as the issues of women. Once in office, we use be incredible change agents and put forth policies that wouldn't happen without our efforts."—Jessie Ryan MA '13Both Harris and Baker prevailed at the ballot box, but as women in positions of power, they are exceptions. Women remain far outnumbered by men in the highest elective offices and corporate leadership. More than half of the California and U.S. population, women make up fewer than 23 percent of California Senate and Assembly members and not quite 20 percent of those in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Just 5.8 percent of CEOs at companies listed on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index are women, and more than half of companies in a recent global survey had no women among their top executives. Though Hillary Clinton came close, no woman has yet served as president of the United States.

This scarcity and the 2016 presidential campaign give Jessie Ryan, a 2012 graduate of SMC’s Master of Arts in Leadership program and executive vice president at the Campaign for College Opportunity, less certainty about the prospects for women seeking the upper echelon of power, in politics or other arenas.

Ryan has run for office herself, heeding the message of empowerment her mother communicated to her as a child and winning a seat on the Sacramento School Board twice. She has also encouraged her own young daughter to see the future as limitless. But after the November election, Ryan said, “While I continue to tell my daughter she can be anything, I realize there are more systemic and cultural barriers than I believed.”

Ryan is one of the SMC alumni, professors, and students reassessing women’s challenges and opportunities to lead and exercise power. Among them is Professor Denise Witzig, director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program.

“We take a lot for granted. We think progress happens on its own, but it happens because people try to create a more equitable landscape,” Witzig reflected. “I believe women will try to gain some control over the reins of leadership. History never works in a straight line—it’s more like concentric circles or a spiral.”

First, more women need to run for political office. Seeing few role models at the top, many find it hard to envision themselves in positions of power.

“Studies show women have to hear they should run five times before they consider it, whereas when a man hears someone casually mention it to him, that sparks the idea that he could be a good candidate,” said Ryan, who may eventually become a Sacramento City Council or California Assembly candidate. “This manifests as a leadership vacuum. Until women in office are proportional to the female demographic, we won’t have policy that reflects the needs of women and girls.”

The perceptions of others also inhibit women. Men and women can view powerful women with suspicion, Witzig noted, and Ryan has seen a similar reaction to mothers in politics. The self-reflection required in her graduate program convinced Ryan that elective office was her path to leadership. But as the mother of two young children, she heard one question repeatedly: Are you sure you want to do this?

“One of the most troubling realities is how often men view the ability to lead as compromised by being a mother,” said Ryan. “Yet the perspective is culturally different when you have women at the table rather than a table of men talking about what they perceive as the issues of women. Once in office, we can be incredible change agents and put forth policies that wouldn’t happen without our efforts.”

Some women in positions of political power, including Clinton, have been told they smile too much or too little. The corporate world issues similar criticisms about women pursuing leadership.

Bari Williams MBA ’03 recently became the head of StubHub’s North America business operations after serving as lead legal counsel at Facebook and has been widely recognized for her achievements and leadership. Nonetheless, Williams said, “As a woman, you have to be a good leader, but you always have to be nice. Sheryl Sandberg [Facebook’s chief operating officer] can be seen as direct, but it’s harder for women with less tenure or in lesser positions. Particularly as a woman of color, there’s an extra level of pressure.”

Women, however, are facing these obstacles head-on. Said Witzig, “They just do it. They have great determination. Empowerment sometimes happens when agency is given to you. In other cases, you have to take it.”

That’s exactly what Baker did in 2014, when she first campaigned for an Assembly seat. No one had asked the political novice to run, but she was determined to effect change in education in ways she didn’t feel she could as a parent active in the local schools. Looking back, Baker said, “I think it is essential that women run for office. There are problems that are just waiting for someone to address them. You have to be willing to take some risk. That’s a lot easier when you believe in what you’re doing. Find out what room you need to be in to have an influence and go for it. Believing in what you’re doing will give you the self-confidence.”

"My mother raised me to be results-oriented. I wasn't allowed to say there was a problem unless I could also come up with a solution. Nothing speaks more powerfully than tangible results." —Bari Williams MBA '03Williams is also among the undeterred. She explained, “My mother raised me to be results-oriented. I wasn’t allowed to say there was a problem unless I could also come up with a solution. Nothing speaks more powerfully than tangible results.”

Both she and Ryan completed Emerge California leadership training for Democratic women, and Williams has hosted and supported political candidates, including Harris. Williams said, “Leadership means different things to different people. You can lead personally or professionally. I do community service through a lot of organizations. To me, that’s a function of leadership.”

Williams and other SMC women also realize the importance of mentors. Stephanie Volkoff Green ’01, development manager for the California Women’s Foundation, had early opportunities to work with trailblazing women in politics, interning with the late U.S. Rep. Juanita Millender- McDonald as an undergraduate and becoming a teaching assistant to the late Texas Governor Ann Richards during graduate school. More recently, Kavya Maddali ’18, Bay Area region deputy vice chair for California College Republicans, found a political role model in Baker while serving as her reelection campaign’s regional political director.

“Because I’m in a leadership role, I look for opportunities to help other women seeking leadership roles or to grow in their positions,” said Baker, noting that she has mentored both women and men.

Through the examples of others, their own experiences, and education, these women are finding their vision and voices of leadership. For Ryan, that means using her position to advance community members and empower girls.

“People often think a woman pursuing elective office is making a grab for power rather than leading,” said Ryan. “If you’re a strong leader, you amass some power. I view that as political capital. How you use it makes all the difference: Do you use political capital for yourself or to lift up others, to right an inequity?”

To Maddali, leadership requires collaboration. It’s a lesson she gained through Panetta Institute for Public Policy student leadership training and her role representing her class in SMC student government. It’s also a conception of leadership central to the thinking and teaching of SMC professors such as Ken Otter, co-director of the Master of Arts in Leadership program.

“In my view, a relational approach is a more effective way to be a leader,” said Otter. “On one end, people exercise leadership in terms of formal authority. On the other end is influenced-based power, which is predicated on a relationship that moves another person voluntarily. Though there are exceptions, I see women as more fully capable than men of that full spectrum.”

Ryan emerged from her master’s degree program with a belief that leadership is an act of giving and receiving power. She said, “At times, you step forward and say you need to lead, to be the voice that echoes.”

Will a woman come forward and take the final step to the U.S. presidency? Baker, for one, envisions this happening now that a woman has been the nominee of a major political party. She said, “I think and believe and hope that women are on the cusp.”

As an SMC student planning to pursue law school and legislative leadership, Maddali feels a similar optimism when she observes women now rising in political positions. She explained, “With people like [U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] Nikki Haley and Kamala Harris, I’m incredibly excited. If we have the right candidate, I’m ready to get behind her. I’m looking forward to our first female president—America is ready for it.”