Wendy R. Sherman is senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group and a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. At the Department of State during the Obama administration, she was the lead U.S. negotiator in the nuclear talks with Iran.
In 2011, when I heard that Bill Burns was going to be named deputy secretary of state under Secretary Hillary Clinton, I called Cheryl Mills, Hillary’s chief of staff. I wanted to let her know I was interested in replacing Bill as undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department. At the time, I was vice-chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, a global consulting firm. I already had several years of experience at State, first as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs under former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and then as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s counselor in the 1990s.
Cheryl and I had some initial conversations that seemed to indicate I was being considered. Then things went silent. In Washington, interviewing for a major position is a bit of a blood sport. Reporters and pundits kick around names quite publicly, so success or failure is never a private matter. If I was going to be passed over, I wondered whether it was better that my name had fallen off the roster early. In any case, there was nothing further to be done.
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Some weeks later, Cheryl called to say I was back under consideration. Would I meet her for a Sunday breakfast to discuss?
When we met, Cheryl explained that the secretary was disposed favorably toward me but that a concern had been raised about me that I was not a team player and thus wouldn’t be a good fit. I strained to figure out where this was coming from. I thought perhaps it emanated from when I had been assistant secretary of legislative affairs, a post that required me to tell powerful people in the State Department that their priority was not the president’s and thus, they could not go up to Capitol Hill to push for their own agendas. It was hard to imagine that I’d be faulted years afterward for doing what was only my job. As we talked, however, it became clear that “not a team player” really meant “too assertive.”
I was stunned. Throughout my career, I’d been called “tough.” It was a compliment that was regularly paid to women in Washington who demanded excellent work, but of course, it always sounded less begrudging when it was said of a man. In the competition for the political affairs job, “tough” had somehow become “too assertive.” Critiques like this one, along with being called “ambitious” or “aggressive,” are often lodged against women. They had been lodged against Secretary Clinton and Cheryl herself. Indeed, I was dismayed that these two very strong and powerful women believed about me the very unfair criticisms that had been pointed at them. Cheryl said she would get back to me.
Finally, an evening meeting was set up at Secretary Clinton’s home in Washington. Hillary and I talked about the job itself and my ideas for how to do it, but eventually she brought up some of the same questions Cheryl had. She respected me enough to be direct with me about what she’d heard, and I answered with the same honesty, repeating what I’d told Cheryl. I left still not knowing if an offer would come.
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In Washington, no advocate is more valuable than the person who did the job before you, and did it well. Bill Burns, with whom I had worked closely during Bill Clinton‘s presidency, was one of my champions inside the department. He stepped in, telling the secretary that I would be a great team player. In the end, Secretary Clinton, with President Barack Obama’s agreement, nominated me to the post, and I became the first woman undersecretary of state for political affairs.
It was not the first time I realized what a tricky thing it is to be a powerful woman in Washington, nor was it the last. Two years later, for instance, in October 2013, I had to break the news to my Iran negotiation counterparts, known as the P5+1 and EU, that I had known about secret back-channel talks with Iran that had started in Oman months ago. This was an admission that revealed to them, and myself, that I had finally, fully assumed the mantle of U.S. power; that I was comfortable with negotiating from a place of strength and going it alone if necessary. It took the better part of a career in Washington, where calcified work structures make it so difficult for women, to learn how to be comfortable owning my own power—a necessary step if you are to wield it successfully.
Power comes naturally to some people. I don’t think anyone who knew me as a teenager back in Baltimore would have picked me to be running a major nuclear arms deal 30 years later. My sister recalls me as a preteen homebody who liked to sit in her room and read.
Luckily, since then, I’ve had wonderful role models who taught me how to understand power. One is my friend, former boss and business partner, Secretary Albright. Years ago, when she was serving as U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration, Madeleine told me that the trick is not to simply wield your personal power, but to own the power of your office. Who, after all, can truly measure up to the outsize might of the United States? “When you sit across the negotiating table,” Madeleine told me, “you are the United States of America, not Wendy. If you know that and use that, it matters more than the fact that you’re a woman.” Madeleine showed me that owning that power was quite something.
Former Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, for whom I was chief of staff and then campaign manager in the 1980s, showed me one way of owning my power. Barbara doesn’t just assume a role—she transforms it by inhabiting it. Not even five feet tall and comfortably round, Barbara makes for an unlikely politician, as she acknowledged when running for the Senate in 1985. “I’m not particularly glamorous-looking,” she later told an interviewer about her difficulty measuring up to her primary opponents, Rep. Mike Barnes and Gov. Harry Hughes, also flatly stating that “I just didn’t look the part.” Barbara had no hope of growing more “senatorial,” saying, “I guess they don’t make togas in size 14 petite.”
Watching Barbara over the past 40 years and more, I’ve seen that the powerful role you take on can eventually be—and should be—very close to the person you really are. You should change and grow in the role, but you can also change the way people think of the office you fill. Recalling how she was able to find her place in the male-dominated Senate in 1986 (there was only one other female senator when she arrived, Nancy Kassebaum), Barbara said her attitude was, “This is what the part looks like, and this is what the part is going to look like.”
I’ve learned a lot from men wielding their power too, and I’ve greatly admired many of them. The question of how women use their power, however, is far more complicated, more difficult and more urgent today than it is for men. Women, it must be said, have a strange relationship with power. We aren’t afraid of it necessarily, but we seem more comfortable with informal power than institutional power.
Early in my career, while organizing in local neighborhoods, I did a study with another social work student, looking at the evolution of leadership in neighborhood organizations. Most often those organizations were started by women who, in order to protect their children, wanted the city to install a traffic light at a busy intersection, or worried about safe drinking water for their families. Women got busy and got the job done, without asking whether they could do so, when they could do something for someone else. As soon as their efforts had attracted the backing of grants and donors—that is, at the point that advocacy became an organization—men invariably stepped in. Whether elected or self-appointed, men became the head of the organization once the women had built it.
Perhaps this is why women are sometimes more comfortable working within a group. When I took on the job of Mikulski’s chief of staff in the House, I found solace in a group of female chiefs of staff (or “administrative assistants,” as both men and women were known then). Eleanor Lewis ran New York Rep. Gerry Ferraro’s team. Nancy LeaMond was chief of staff for Rep. Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio. Nikki Heidepriem had led efforts on behalf of women’s issues for the Democratic presidential campaign in 1984. Kitty Higgins worked for Michigan Rep. Sandy Levin.
At our monthly Chinese take-out dinners in one another’s homes, we talked about common issues and brainstormed better ways to do our jobs and manage our personal lives. This bunch of seasoned political aides sustained me when I was learning the job on the fly, constantly playing catch-up and thinking sometimes that I was going to lose my mind.
But in those primitive days for women in the House, we did more than comfort one another. We proved, at least to one another, that it was possible to do our jobs and still live full lives and not go crazy. We talked one another through the rough spots and served as models for one another. It was only after I became pregnant with my daughter—I had told Barbara when she hired me that I hoped to have a child in the near future—that Nancy LeaMond felt that she could do the same. Just by being there, we established that we could be both women and chiefs of staff. In doing so, we changed one another and in ways large and small changed everyone’s expectations about working in the House.
I would never give up the friendships I formed with those women. But looking back, I realize that we already had the skills to do our jobs before we started. We had the smarts to learn the ropes on our own. Women are often in denial about their own capabilities and search for others—groups of women or commanding men—to establish their power. When doing important personal work, like caring for our parents and children, the old and the young—both tasks that fall primarily to women—we are far more adept at adapting to new work and unfamiliar situations. When called on to make ends meet, we do what we must without stopping to doubt ourselves. Women excel at times when they have no choice but to take the job and do their best. Why can’t we have the same confidence in the jobs we want and like as well? We may not always have the knowledge going in, but I’d trust any woman to figure out nearly any job.
Guys rarely question whether they can do the next job up. In my experience, they say yes and either worry about what they need to know later or—it’s been known to happen—not at all. There is research that indicates this isn’t just my own anecdotal observation. A widely cited internal study done by Hewlett-Packard in 2017 showed that men will apply for a job when they have 60 percent of the qualifications for the post; women will do so only when they can show that they have all of them.
It’s an open question precisely why women continue to deny their own capabilities, despite the past century of feminist activism. We know that women are still told to be quiet, and that we are still interrupted when we don’t comply. We know that men are told to push themselves forward while women are told to hang back. We worry when we are given more responsibility or more power, and too often we still believe that we don’t know enough, aren’t skilled enough, aren’t substantive enough, to do what the job we are applying for requires. When I became the assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the State Department, I’d already run a congressional representative’s office and a Senate campaign and served as executive director of both EMILY’s List and the Democratic National Committee during a national presidential campaign (Mike Dukakis’). My résumé was among the most accomplished in Washington. Yet when the job was offered to me, I was completely overwhelmed by what I didn’t know.
None of this is to say that confidence alone is enough to combat bias in fields where women are underrepresented. The field of national security and foreign policy has long been the domain of men. Although we have had three female secretaries of state, a glance at the major foreign policy publications and the panelists at major conferences will show that our security and diplomacy leaders are still predominantly men.
It is not our numbers alone that put us at a disadvantage. As undersecretary of state for political affairs, I often attended meetings in the White House Situation Room, the underground, secure conference room where senior policymakers debate the government’s way forward, often with the president in the room to finalize the decisions being made. At the time, the top positions on the National Security Council were all occupied by women, with Susan Rice as national security adviser and Avril Haines and Lisa Monaco as her deputies. These amazingly talented women, then all in their 40s, gave away nothing to male staffers in the depth of their analysis or their ability to articulate it. Yet even in this environment, men’s voices were heard differently than the women’s. As we went around the table giving our views on the topic of the day, one of the women would make a point. After one or two speakers had followed with further comments, a man at the table would inevitably repeat nearly verbatim the point made by Susan, Avril, Lisa or me. To my amazement, no one would remark that the point had already been made; rather, they would affirm their male colleague’s statement by saying, “Good point.”
Soon a quiet realization dawned on us: We girls had to stick together. The women of the Situation Room developed an unspoken rule. When any man commented by repeating something that had been said earlier by a woman, one of the other women at the table would jump in. “I’m glad you agree with what ——— just said,” one of us would say about our female colleague’s identical comment, or else, “That builds nicely on the point ——— made just before.” We tried to be subtle—so subtle sometimes that I’m not convinced it always penetrated the consciousnesses of the men in the room. But we did what we could to make sure we were heard, affirmed and acknowledged, which was a wonderfully empowering experience.
I try to do something similar when I do speaking engagements. After I’ve finished my prepared remarks, I customarily open the floor to questions. The first questioner is almost always a man, usually followed by another man. If by the fourth question no women have raised their hands, I stop the question period and say that I won’t continue until I hear from some of the women in the room. That brings nervous laughter, recognition and finally some raised hands from women.
The real drawback of this dynamic is that it affects how women do their jobs. When Madeleine Albright became the first female secretary of state, she understood that her first task was to assure people that she was strong enough to do the job. So she asked President Bill Clinton to nominate Strobe Talbott, Tom Pickering, Stu Eizenstat and Tim Wirth as her deputy and key undersecretaries. Rather than an admission that she needed men’s help, appointing men to these spots sent the message that she could handle, and even welcome, their strength. It must have been incredibly frustrating to constantly have to prove her ease with the role she was so clearly cut out for. For her closest staff, she hired women who could be counted on for a straightforward chat when she needed to get her thoughts in order—Elaine Shocas to be her chief of staff, with Suzy George as deputy chief of staff. Along with me as her counselor, Madeleine always had a travel companion with whom she could talk directly about her own use of power or, if needed, whether she needed to reapply her lipstick.
Madeleine also had to take care to show that she was willing to fight. Not a warmonger by any stretch of the imagination, she did understand that women are perceived as hesitant to use force. As U.N. ambassador, she had burnished her credentials when she traveled with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Shalikashvili, to peacekeeping missions. When she became secretary, her approach to the conflict in Kosovo was so adept that Time magazine put her on the cover with the line, “Madeleine’s War.”
When I consider how Madeleine managed to change the way we think of women in power, I see that she did it by embracing her femininity, by never falling into the trap of acting like a man to claim equality with men. Madeleine loves clothes and chooses what she wears with care. From her trademark brooches that she used to make diplomatic points to her impeccable style of dress and her love of popular culture, she didn’t allow the role of secretary of state to change the fact that she was a woman.
Even working at the highest levels of government, I saw countless casual, workaday examples of the diminishment of women’s power, usually the kind dismissed as minor annoyances, the kind of jostling that can be found whenever men and women come together. As a group of us were sorting out last details on the eve of announcing the final Iran nuclear agreement in Vienna in 2015, some of the foreign ministers who had already arrived in town went to dinner with a few aides. It so happened that, because of the extraordinary composition of the P5+1 team, those of us still leading the work were mostly women. As we worked to get to closure on the last details of the agreement, text messages began to transmit back to some of us that some ministers were making derogatory jokes about how much more efficient the process would be if men were in charge. We agreed not to get distracted by the misogyny and just get the work done.
Often, when women make an effort to be recognized, our demand to be valued isn’t enough—men have to validate us, as Bill Burns did for me with Secretary Clinton, or else other, more powerful women have to intervene.
More women need to stand up for each other. In many places, but especially in Washington, there is a tight cadre of guys in national security and foreign policy who recommend each other on a consistent basis for every good job that comes along. We women need to do the same for each other and insist that the boys’ network consider capable women as well when those jobs come along.
Women need to stop thinking that “power” is a dirty word, or that the trappings of power matter less than the work. When President Clinton and Secretary Albright asked me to come back to government as Madeleine’s counselor, I asked to be confirmed with the rank of ambassador. It was one of the smartest things I ever asked for. I knew that as a woman and without line authority, I needed some heft beyond the position, and so the Senate confirmed me as an ambassador. It has been immensely helpful. When, in that position, I led American delegations to, for instance, trilateral talks with Japan and South Korea on North Korea and all the delegations were men, being “Ambassador Sherman” undoubtedly helped when I dealt with North Korea. The title has been helpful ever since.
Women have a tremendous amount of power that comes with the roles we play in society, far more power than we ever had before. We cannot wield this power positively without understanding our strengths and owning them. At the same time, we have to appreciate that so many of the remaining obstacles to women’s advancement— most blatantly, perhaps, the sexual harassment in the workplace that has become an important topic of conversation—are all about power. We must each have the courage to stand up for what is right. We also need to rediscover the power of working collectively and become adept at using social media to speak with one voice. The challenge for many of us remains the interpersonal moments, when we have to risk being called tough, aggressive, even difficult. Our only response must be to continue to view—and use—power positively.
Adapted from Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence by Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman. Copyright 2018. Available from PublicAffairs Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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