WASHINGTON, D.C.—Twelve Barnard students gathered in the nation’s capital Thursday to hear from women leaders from around the world.
The Women in Public Service Project, a State Department initiative begun this spring, is a mentorship program in partnership with Barnard and four other women’s colleges encouraging young women to enter careers in public service and politics. The project envisions a world in which political and civic leadership is at least 50 percent female by 2050.
At the inaugural colloquium hosted this Thursday, hosted in the State Department building, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a dozen other women leaders spoke to students from Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley Colleges.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Barnard President Debora Spar sat across the aisle from one another.
Farah Pandith, special Representative to Muslim Communities for the State Department, attributed this goal to the “Hillary effect,” a phrase that has come to describe Clinton’s contagious enthusiasm. Pandith applauded Clinton for her 2008 presidential campaign, citing “15 million cracks in the glass ceiling.”
In keeping this reputation, Clinton spoke fervently about the multifaceted initiative. She deplored the United States’ reluctance to support female politicians, while applauding India’s quota of female lawmakers. Clinton’s opening remarks referenced her own experiences, too. “It was 18 million cracks,” she declared.
Shilpa Guha, BC ’15, took Clinton’s former seat to interview Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the White House and mentor to First Lady Michelle Obama. Jarrett spoke passionately about the White House Council on Women and Girls, which promotes equality bills in Congress and other progress relating to women’s rights.
Each speaker offered a different piece of career advice to the audience. Atifete Jahjaga, first female President of Kosovo, said that “the only way to guarantee change is to be part of the change.” Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said she found that French companies wanted to hire women on their boards but complain of a lack of qualified women. She said she created a list of capable women and told the companies, “I have a list. You can pick.”
There was a plug for men to take action, too. “We need a ‘Men in Private Service Project,’” said author and activist Gloria Steinem, calling for more male contribution in family life.
“My favorite moment of the day was walking into the auditorium where the event was held and seeing the names on the reserved seats in the first row,” SGA president and conference attendee Jessica Blank, BC ’12, said in an email.
Following the State Department events, guests attended a luncheon at the nearby Kennedy Center with Ruth Messinger, former borough president of Manhattan.
The conference offered the women the opportunity for humble reflection. Jane Harmon, president of the Woodrow Wilson Institute, opened a discussion panel by asking “What is one of your failures?”
Vice Admiral Carol Pottenger of NATO joked that “failure in the military would not lead to this many stripes on my jacket,” but admitted that it took some time for her to assert herself professionally in a field dominated by men.
Thursday’s colloquium developed a sense of camaraderie. “I now know I am not alone,” Jahjaga, the Kosovan president, said.
But it also called for the young women to take action. Clinton said that there is a particular need for women to have a commanding presence in the fields of research and data analysis.
“As a college senior who is preparing to enter the job market, I am sure that I will face rejection and failure over the course of my career,” Blank said. To hear from such accomplished women that not only have … failed but have grown from their failures was both reassuring and motivating.”
In the meantime, Steinem assured guests that “dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.”
An earlier version of this story misportrayed the scale of the Women in Public Leadership Project. The story also failed to contextualize Christine Lagarde's quote. The article has been updated to reflect these corrections.