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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Events June 5, 2014

Jane Harman ’66 Shares Lessons on Women's Leadership

Speaking to international delegates gathered for the Women in Public Service Project  (WPSP) Institute at Smith June 3, Jane Harman ’66 had some advice for emerging women leaders.

“The world is complicated, it’s enormously dangerous and women don’t often have opportunities,” said Harman, a former U.S. Congresswoman who is now director, president and chief executive officer of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C.  “Let’s stick together. Let’s learn from each other.”

Harman was among more than 60 scholars, policymakers and activists who took part in the two-week Institute that wrapped up June 6. Others from Smith included feminist icon Gloria Steinem ’56, Massachusetts Congresswoman Niki Tsongas ’68, former U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Carol Rodley ’76, Harvard Resident Fellow Farah Pandith ’90 and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy ’02.

At a June 3 luncheon at Smith, Harman–who was among the architects of the WPSP launch in 2011–offered seven lessons for women leaders.

First and foremost: “Leadership is inside out,” she said. “You have to speak your own truth and have your own internal compass.”

Number 2: “Leadership is lonely,” she warned. “You have to make decisions that not everyone will like.”

Harman stressed that the purpose of women’s leadership is “to help each other,” and she lauded the Institute for providing a safe space for such networking.

Jane Harman’s seven lessons for women leaders.

  1. Leadership is inside out. You have to speak your own truth and have your own internal compass.
  2. Leadership is lonely. You have to make decisions that not everyone will like.
  3. Leaders never give up; never quit.
  4. It takes an enormous amount of work to be a leader. You have to learn subject matter and work hard. There are no shortcuts.
  5. Failing is good. When something doesn’t work out, understand that it will make you stronger. Keep smiling – smiling is good. Go forward and pursue other opportunities. You will be a better leader for having failed.
  6. Leaders have lives, too. You all have partners, spouses, brothers and sisters, communities and villages – people who need you. You have to figure out how to balance their part in your life in addition to public service.
  7. Your obligation is to help each other.

The Institute, sponsored jointly by Smith, Mount Holyoke and Simmons colleges, shares the aims of the WPSP to boost the number of women leaders in political and public office to 50 percent worldwide by 2050.  During panel discussions, networking sessions and a tour of the city of Holyoke, this year’s 48 delegates explored how women can help rebuild communities and advance notions of leadership.

Many of their discussions focused on the powerful impact of women sharing their stories – the underlying theme of this year’s gathering.

Addressing a panel June 2 at Smith on “Activism and Change: Archives, Memory and Strategies for Policy Reform and Personal Development,” Steinem urged delegates to remember “how important it is for us to record our stories now and also to honor the ways we learn from each other across boundaries.”

At a June 3 screening at Smith of two of her documentary films, Obaid-Chinoy told Institute participants that even sharing difficult stories can help inspire change.

Her 2013 film Humaira: The Dream Catcher, for example, tells the story of how one young woman had the courage to become an activist for women’s education in areas of Pakistan where girls have been attacked for attending school. Obaid-Chinoy’s Academy Award-winning film Saving Face documents the stories of Pakistani women who were victims of acid attacks.

When asked by delegates how she handles working on such difficult topics, Obaid-Chinoy said, “I only have one allegiance, and that is to my heart. I can sleep if I know what I’ve done will make the world better.”

Delegate Shabnam Baloch of Pakistan was among those who were inspired by the screenings.

“Something inside of me is telling me I am not the same person after watching these films,” she said.