Friday, February 27, 2015

Women In Power: The Impact of Critical Mass

A week ago, Harvard University's Institute of Politics held a JFK forum on Women in Power: The Impact of Critical Mass, moderated by TIME magazine's highly accomplished Washington correspondent Jay Newton-Small. The panelists, including Jeanne Shaheen, US Senator from New Hampshire, Fernande R.V. Duffy, Associate Justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and Amy W. Schulman, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, gathered to discuss the impacts of women in leadership roles across all sectors.

The discussion was framed around the topic of "critical mass," which moderator Newton-Small defined as the tipping point between male and female representation in any forum; in order to make a measurable impact on outcomes, women need at least 20% - 30% representation, and more critically, in senior positions that allow them to influence change . She noted that women do not often achieve critical mass, whether in Congress, on executive boards, in corporate meeting rooms or on supreme courts. All three panelists agreed that reaching a point of critical mass within their respective sectors is integral to enacting change on a national level.

One of the most interesting topics brought up throughout the discussion was the difference between women's roles in the private sector vs the public sector, i.e.. women's roles in the "corporate world" vs the federal government. Women currently represent 20% of Congress and 35% of federal courts, but in corporations, women have been consistently stuck at 17%. Amy Schulman speaks from a business perspective on the different dynamics of women's leadership in the corporation world:

"In the corporate world, if you are seen as the emblem of a point of view, thats actually going to hinder your ultimate chances for advancement…I think that dynamic of critical mass is what allows for authenticity because instead as being seen as that epiphenomenon, you are actually free to express your range of views that you may have and it is harder to marginalize you." 

Jeanne Shaheen also shared many of her experiences as one of 20 females in the Senate, starting with her efforts to re-open the government during its shutdown in 2013. An informal bipartisan group, primarily comprised of women, met on its own to find a compromise to the shutdown issue. This was a great example of the power of critical mass for women; what little did get done during that Congressional session was done by women.

"It was our efforts that pressured the leadership on both sides of the aisle to come to some agreement...It was that relationship that the women in the Senate had; that we trusted each other, we knew each other and we were able to say, 'we can find a way out of this, we can find a compromise.'" 

To listen to the full forum discussion and audience questions visit:“critical-mass”

Pictured below: MWPC Intern, Kaitlyn Maloney, at the JFK Forum with NH Senator Jeanne Shaheen.