Inspiring Women’s Leadership in the Next Generation
January 12, 2018

Foreign policy is not a field dominated by women—at least, that’s how it appears to the average citizen watching CNN. Women are not recognized as experts in the media (on any topic) nearly as often as men are. In 2017, men received 62 percent of bylines and other credits in print, online, TV, and wire news, while women received 38 percent, according to the Women’s Media Center, even though numerous brilliant women work tirelessly behind the scenes as journalists, researchers, policy analysts, and more.

A culture shift is necessary. While 2017 was a major year for women’s empowerment, from the launch of the Women’s March movement to the unveiling of pervasive sexual harassment and abuse across multiple sectors, we all know there is still more to be done. A good deal of responsibility rests within our next generation—both the young women and men who will determine the direction of our cultural and professional recognition of women’s talents and strength as leaders. And much will start by young women trusting their own ability to be leaders.

Late in December, we presented a professional development session for our Junior Fellows, a prestigious quarterly position here at the Pacific Council for current students and recent graduates to gain experience at a nonprofit dedicated to foreign policy. The topic: women in leadership.

Ferial Govashiri urged our Junior Fellows to work on trying to express themselves without qualifiers in professional settings so that their input is heard.

We invited accomplished Pacific Council members Ferial Govashiri and Mattie McFadden Lawson to speak with our Junior Fellows (last quarter all happened to be young women) about their own career trajectories and their experiences as leaders in their fields.

Ferial Govashiri is an Irvine native who worked her way up from grassroots organizing in Orange County to manage all of the national events during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She then went on to serve in the Obama administration on the presidential transition team, as national security advisor for strategic communications, and as personal aide to the president. Govashiri now works as the chief of staff to the chief of content at Netflix.

She expressed to our Junior Fellows that women face unique challenges in the professional context. For example, women in meetings tend to overanalyze their contributions and miss the moment to share their thoughts. She urged the Fellows to work on trying to express themselves without qualifiers in professional settings so that their input is heard.

"Your integrity and reputation is all that you have, and it spreads like wildfire," said Govashiri.

Govashiri moved from D.C., where she had a well-established career in politics, to L.A. and the entertainment industry, which came with its own challenges.

"It’s humbling to change industries," she said. "You have to be okay with not always being the best."

When reflecting on her career trajectory and the growth of her professional network, she noted the importance of being honest and reliable. "Your integrity and reputation is all that you have, and it spreads like wildfire."

Mattie McFadden Lawson, director of the International Black Women’s Public Policy Institute and president of the MML Design Group, has an extensive background in public policy and management, fundraising, and the arts. She has worked at McKinsey, volunteered for Maxine Waters, where she learned fundraising, and has managed a fiscal year budget on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee.

It is essential to women’s progress that we work together, and that unless women are willing to get a little uncomfortable by mobilizing together, nothing will improve.

Lawson attributes her success in leadership to her honesty and integrity. She recommends that women declare their value when faced with skepticism over whether they belong in a given professional context and argues that women often refrain from saying what they truly mean because of our eagerness to be heard. A piece of advice she gave to the Junior Fellows is to always come prepared, but admit what you don’t know.

Lawson believes that the future of women in leadership is bright, and that 2017’s Women’s March sent a strong message that "we have a voice and we want to have a seat at the table." I agree with her conviction that it is essential to women’s progress that we work together, and that unless women are willing to get a little uncomfortable by mobilizing together, nothing will improve.

On expertise and professional growth, Lawson said to push your boundaries beyond the topics and issues you know best.

"Wherever you’re a 10 in expertise, move to where you’re a 0."

My advice to the next generation of women leaders? It is important to believe in yourself as a leader when you do not have authority, especially those starting out in their careers.

My advice to the next generation of women leaders? It is important to believe in yourself as a leader when you do not have authority, especially those starting out in their careers. Create opportunities outside of formal structures and processes—what I call "informal leadership"—to build relationships and get things done. I tend to be more confident in one-on-one settings versus professional group settings, and I seek to build relationships in the context I am most comfortable. I often find this is welcomed.

Also, when engaging with people who have more authority but less knowledge on a topic, the trick is to position a comment in a non-confrontational way— something that women are particularly mindful of doing.

I have great confidence in the future generation of our leaders, both men and women, many of whom I work with every day at the Pacific Council. But it is important to recognize the obstacles facing equitable workplaces so that we can only go up from here. Keep an eye out for regular commentary from me on this topic, and I hope you’ll continue to engage whole-heartedly with our initiatives and programs no matter your gender, age, or background.

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Jennifer Faust is the executive director of the Pacific Council.

Isabella Lloyd-Damnjanovic, who served as the Pacific Council's Fall 2017 Communications Junior Fellow, contributed to this article.

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