The Female Advantage in Leadership
Governor Christine Gregoire on women in politics
Former two-term Governor of Washington state, Christine Gregoire, joined the Harvard community as a Kennedy School Fall 2014 Fellow with a mission to inspire students to follow her calling. “I came here to ask you to run [for office]. You’re among the best and the brightest. And that’s what the country needs now.”
Gregoire was the first female to be elected into the position of Attorney General in the state of Washington. Her key role as lead negotiator in the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement earned her the title “Tobacco Slayer.” This historic agreement banned “predatory” tobacco advertising targeted at youths and forced companies to compensate states for Medicare costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. It remains not only one of the greatest public health success stories of all time, but at $206-billion, it is also one of the largest legal settlements in history.
With a highly successful career in public leadership, Gregoire is not unfamiliar with the challenges faced by women aspiring to leadership positions. When running for Attorney General, critics deemed her “not tough enough,” despite her legal education and experience. In contrast, when running for governor, she was seen as “too tough.”
Gregoire was vocal about her discouragement at the lack of female leaders, particularly in executive positions at the state level. She relates this to the fact that there aren’t enough female executive role models out there. “Women need to see themselves in those positions. They should not doubt themselves.”
In fact, Gregoire highlighted the fact that women have a natural advantage in positions of leadership, thanks to their ability to reconcile opposing views. This is particularly beneficial in a bipartisan political environment. “In my opinion, the country was founded on compromise … [and] collaboration and compromise are always, always in the best interests of the people that you serve.”
Indeed, this was Gregoire’s approach to being a Democratic leader; she wanted to govern for the entire state, which included Republican constituents. “Sure, they’re minority, but … they represent Washingtonians too.” Gregoire emphasized the point that such a bipartisan approach was her way of ensuring that her policies would stand the test of time.
Gregoire urged the next generation of public office leaders to branch out into local government positions.
“Your career doesn’t have to start and end in Washington, DC. If you really want to do exciting, fun, interesting, risk-taking, progressive things, come on out [to] cities, counties, states — that’s where the leadership is taking place. We’re the laboratories, and Congress follows our lead.”
Indeed, Gregoire expressed her faith in public health students as the next generation of leaders, emphasizing how they have a unique vantage point over their peers. “You are the people that deserve to be in public office. If you’re in public health, you have the heart, [and] that’s what we need in public office today.”
Story edited by Jeffrey Reynoso