Women make up just a small percentage of leaders in government, but the five panelists at Wednesday’s 2nd annual Women’s Leadership Round Table reminded the audience why that statistic needs to change, challenging those in attendance to make a difference in their local communities.
Panelists Ann Veneman, former director of UNICEF and the only woman to serve as United States Agriculture Secretary, current California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, State Water Resources Control Board member Dorene D’Adamo and county supervisors Kristin Olsen (Stanislaus) and Leticia Perez (Kern) each chose a life of public service and the unique challenges it brings, and at the event, they shared with moderator and Journal editor Kristina Hacker exactly what made them select a career in government.
“…I would say I have public service in my DNA,” said Veneman. “It’s been a great honor for me to have so many different opportunities in my life, but I think that public service has always been some of the most rewarding work that I’ve done.”
Veneman has been the first woman to serve in six different positions which she’s held, she said, and has had to deal with doubt and hesitancy from her peers. Colleagues assumed she was the department secretary since she was a woman, and she almost lost out on her title as public defender because no one believed she would be able to go into the jails to do her job.
“My whole law firm got to join the SOS Club, but I couldn’t because I was a woman,” she said.
The other panelists also shared things that they have overcome as female leaders in government, like when Olsen had to endure being called “kiddo,” by a male counterpart while serving on the Modesto City Council, or when Ross had trouble being taken seriously as a woman working in the agricultural field.
Working hard helped Ross to overcome gender-related obstacles, she said.
“What I learned very, very quickly is that I always studied hardest and went into the room knowing more about whatever subject matter that was going to happen than anybody else, and then there was never a gender thing,” said Ross.
Perez had to overcome not only the challenges that come with being a woman in government to land her role as Kern County Supervisor, but as a Latina, she also faced additional struggles. Today, Perez is the only Latina woman elected to a county supervising board in all nine San Joaquin Valley counties.
The best advice she ever received, she said, was to always fight for the underdog.
“I asked ‘What can I do to be part of the policy process that intervenes and makes those possibilities a little more diverse for people?’” said Perez.
Perez, a Democrat, and Olsen, a Republican, formed a friendship in the days leading up to the round table event, they said, highlighting the need for civil discourse between different political parties, especially in these turbulent times. The solution to the political divisiveness currently plaguing the country, said Olsen, begins in local governments.
“I call on all of you,” she told the audience, “be leaders of civility. Model civil discourse in your communities, and that will eventually expand. I think the San Joaquin Valley can lead by example.”
As part of the SWRCB, D’Adamo has found that modeling civil discourse with her colleagues who may have different viewpoints has led to several key successes for the Valley, including the development of a plan to ensure clean drinking water for the region. She also pointed out that the plan was put together by mostly female leaders.
“I cannot overstate the value of sitting down and hearing what your opponent has to say and what it is that your opponent needs, and that’s something that women do all the time,” she said.
Olsen encouraged the younger female audience members to take risks and embrace every opportunity that comes their way in the future, regardless of what their goals may be. She also pointed out that, including herself, every female Assembly member in California was replaced by a male during the last election.
In order to get more women into leadership positions, women must advocate for each other, she said.
“I love the men that replaced us and are serving – I think they’re doing a fantastic job – but at some point we have to be the ones to go out and start recruiting other women for local, state and federal office,” said Olsen. “We have to be the ones supporting those women in those candidacies, because if we don’t do it, who’s going to?””