Beacon Award Reception

April 4, 2014

President Janet Napolitano accepted the Beacon Award from the University of Pennsylvania’s Trustees’ Council of Penn Women in Philadelphia on April 4, 2014.

The Beacon Award is presented to highlight Penn’s commitment to women’s issues and recognizes leaders who have demonstrated this same commitment. 

Here are Napolitano's remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Provost Price. 

It’s great to be here in the City of…Sisterly Love.


What an honor it is to receive the Beacon Award. I want to thank the Trustees’ Council on Penn Women for this tremendous privilege. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, and some other woman named Hillary something…

The list of recipients is long and distinguished. I am honored to stand where they stood before me. 

As the Provost noted in his introduction, there have been many “firsts” in my career. I was the first woman Attorney General of Arizona. The first woman governor to win re-election in Arizona history.  The first woman secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. And now, I’m the first woman president of the University of California. 

It is true that I was the first woman to hold many of these positions. But I was a woman first.   


As you know, a key principle of the Beacon Award is leadership—leadership, specifically, with regard to the cause of advancing women. 

I always have found the topic of leadership and women somewhat elusive. It raises several important questions. I’d like to discuss three of those questions with you today.

First, do we subtly send messages to girls that they should not be leaders?


Is leadership something that can be taught?


And fundamentally, what makes a leader?


Let’s start with the first one. 

I would guess that everyone in this room has heard of the new movement to ban the word “bossy”. Sheryl Sandberg, Condoleeza Rice, and Anna Maria Chavez, who is the CEO of the Girls Scouts, are leading the effort. 

Sheryl Sandberg shares an interesting anecdote about their work on this front.

She says that when parents are tempted to describe their daughters as bossy, they should instead try saying, “my daughter has executive leadership skills.”


According to Sandberg, she has never heard anyone say that phrase without laughing.

Then she asks them to try saying it for a boy: “My son has executive leadership skills.” 


This time, the parents don’t laugh at all. It seems natural.

“Bossy” is a pejorative word for girls. No one says that a boy who demonstrates leadership skills is bossy. They say he should be team captain. They say he should be student body president—mind you, not vice president, or secretary, as you might say of a girl. 

Words like “bossy” are just one example of how we steer women away from leadership. It is an unassailable fact that we have whole swaths of our economy where there are virtually no women.  

Look at the Fortune 500. It’s a conspicuous example. Only 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. That’s 23 CEOs out of 500. In fact, it was only 22 until January, when Mary Barra took the helm of General Motors. 

In the legal profession, my former field, the situation is a little better—but still far from ideal. Twenty percent seems to be the number of the day. Just about 20% of named partners at law firms are women. Just about 20% of general counsels at Fortune 500 companies are women. And just about 20% of law school deans in this country are women.  

In 2003, only five of the top 25 universities ranked in U.S. News and World Report had woman presidents. In 2013, ten years later, that number was the same. 


To be clear, the presidents had changed. But there were still only five women. 

(Penn, of course, had two of them—President Rodin, and President Gutmann.) 

Women hold 18% of the seats in the House of Representatives. And they hold 20% of the seats in the Senate. 

You get the idea.

The question is, are these numbers so low because women are less qualified to lead? No. It is in part because we subtly send messages to girls that they should not be leaders, they should not be bossy. We do too good a job of squelching the innate ability—or perhaps the innate ambition—of girls to be leaders. Yes, there is good old-fashioned male chauvinism in play, and yes, there is a glass ceiling. But it is also that they absorb the message and then edit themselves out of the equation.

This brings me to the second question of the afternoon: 

Is leadership something that can be taught?

Let me address this question with an anecdote. It’s about self-selection.

In my first month as President of the University of California, I met with a group of high school students. 

I asked these students if they had heard about UC’s financial aid program. It’s called Blue and Gold, and it allows for students whose families earn less than $80,000 a year to pay no tuition. 

To my dismay, few if any of these high school students had heard of Blue and Gold. One student, who would have qualified for aid, said flat out he wouldn’t even consider applying to UC because his family couldn’t afford it. 

Absent the right information, he already had self-selected out of the UC applicant pool. He had already decided not to even try to attend UC—even though he would have been able to afford it. He self-selected out. And this is what happens too often with women and leadership. 

So what I told these high school students is this:

Believing is the first requirement of achieving.


The second requirement, and it is just as important, is that you have to get in the game.

When I decided to run for office, most of the political candidates were men. It looked very much like a men’s world. But when I considered the quality of the male candidates, I thought—Really?


The relatively small number of women in Congress does not mean that women can’t win elections. It means that they do not run for elections. Because when women do run, they win. And they win in numbers similar to men when you factor in variables like incumbency. You can’t win the prize if you don’t enter the contest.

Now, you do need good teachers to help show you the way. 

For example, I began my career as a lawyer in private practice. I was fortunate to have a great mentor who had also been a mentor to other women.

He was a partner at my firm in Phoenix. His name was John Frank. 

In 1966, John represented, before the United States Supreme Court, a man named Ernesto Miranda. 

If you’re not familiar with the case, you have the right—no, the obligation—to remain silent.


John also had been the mentor to the judge I had clerked for, Mary Schroeder. And Mary, incidentally, became the first woman Chief Justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Finding a good teacher, and soaking up as much knowledge as you can from him—or from her—these are crucial. But again, that knowledge only comes into play if you get in the game.

Sometimes that takes luck, and also the preparation that is sometimes confused for luck. Sometimes it’s not about shattering the glass ceiling, but about being in the right place at the right time. 

That was how I made the jump from a law partnership to the federal government. I knew I was not going to spend my whole career in private practice. When the Clinton Administration came to Arizona to look for a new U.S. Attorney, I was ready. 

I took the next step—the biggest step—on my own. I decided to run for office. I was a Democrat in a red state, but to the surprise of many wise pundits—wise guys, if you will—I won the election, and became the state of Arizona’s first woman Attorney General. 

I was not alone.

There are five statewide elected offices in Arizona, from Governor to Superintendent of Public Instruction. 

In the year I was elected, for the first time in state history, all five positions were won by women. The wise guys called us the Fab Five. 

Not long after, some magazine or newspaper published an election feature—I think it was Businessweek—titled “Weird things from the 1998 election.”

It cited Jesse Ventura—and the Fab Five. 


A former wrestler in a feather boa becoming governor of the great Midwestern state was, I grant you, weird. But five candidates who happen to be women coming into office together—that’s not weird. It’s wonderful. 

I don’t have to tell this audience that the members of the Fab Five did not share the same thoughts or experiences just because we were women. But I do want to emphasize this point anyway. Women who assume a leadership position typically at some point will be asked this question: as a woman, will you differ from your male predecessors? 

My answer is always straightforward—well, for starters, I don’t have a choice.


I do think that when you lead, what you pick as priorities or as initiatives tend to be shaped somewhat by your experiences. They are the aperture through which you see the world. This holds true for all of us, whether we are women or men. 

When I was Attorney General, for example, a top priority for me was Arizona’s Child Protective Services. CPS had 6,000 pending cases. Six thousand. Closing these cases required translating my leadership into action. I had to create a budget. Find the personnel. Hire the right point person. And so that’s what I did. By the time I was elected Governor, the backlog was gone.  

Now, I learned recently that the first women students here at Penn—and, oh, it had only been in existence some 136 years before they were allowed—these pioneers studied music. It wasn’t necessarily their choice; it was their only “choice.” 

I have nothing against music majors. I started out studying music in college, too. I remain a music lover to this day. And so in that spirit I would like to share with you the wisdom of one of this country’s great musicians—Leonard Bernstein.

The famous conductor had this to say about leadership:

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan—and not quite enough time”.


Bernstein’s quote underscores one of the essential truths of leadership—that the landscape a leader inherits is never perfect.

Ultimately, we all operate in the world, not in ideology. There’s almost never enough time, and ideals tend not to play out in practice as neatly as they do in theory. To quote Mike Tyson, “Everybody has a plan—until they get punched in the face.” 


Being able to take the blow and move forward is a big part of the answer to the last question:

What makes a leader?

It should be self-evident there is no single formula. Shine a light on hundreds of individual leaders and you will illuminate hundreds of individual stories. Some leaders have spouses and children. Some, like me, do not. Some care for aging parents. Some are single parents. We all make individual life choices. But if you want to get in the game, none of these individual choices preclude leadership.

Effective leadership depends on a few key pieces:

First, leaders must have a long-term vision. A meta-vision. 

You need to possess the willingness to think bigger.

And you need the ability to persuade other people that they want to be part of this something bigger.

Finally, you must have a sense, operationally, of how to get it all done.

And then—and this is critical—you must have the wisdom and the patience to step back and let others do it.


All of the above is true if you are a man.


And all of the above is true if you are a woman.


Thank you. And Go Quakers.