Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
DSCC Women's History Month Luncheon
March 27, 2013

Thank you Rep. (Tracy Maxwell) Heard (D-26th District and Minority Whip) for that introduction. I’m pleased to be here.

Thanks as well to the Defense Supply Center Columbus for holding this luncheon every year in recognition of Women’s History Month. I’m honored to be with you all today.

Women in leadership is a topic I have some familiarity with. Throughout my career, I have encountered some of the same challenges and triumphs that I am sure many of you in this room have yourselves.

I went to law school at a time when there were few women taking that path. I am one of only a very small number of women who have ever served as county prosecutor in Ohio. When I joined the Supreme Court in 2002, I was proud to be a part of the first female majority on the court.

Amazingly, In the 210-year history of the Ohio Supreme Court, only 10 of the 156 justices who have served on the court were women, and 4 of those are on the current bench.

So, I want to bring my perspective on the role of women in leadership to you today. And I want to talk with you about the importance of cultivating tomorrow’s future women leaders so that one day soon it will not make history when a woman serves as the Chief Justice or in any other important role. We’re almost there.

But first, there are some aspects that transcend gender.

I think we can all agree that being a leader means many things to many people. But, I would argue that there are a few common traits of effective leadership – despite differing leadership styles – that cross the gender lines and are worth pointing out.

Those who lead by example tend to give credit where it’s due. They share the spotlight, and, in fact, let others shine. They are slow to criticize – yet quick to praise, especially in public.

Being a good listener also demonstrates a capacity for and an appreciation of leadership. After all, a leader who doesn’t have all the facts cannot make an informed decision. Effective leadership means hearing the pros and cons of an idea, even when the cons are the last thing you want to hear.

An honest leader also employs fairness and compassion. It means making honest assessments. And, if required, delivering a negative assessment humanely and with a deft touch that appreciates the other person’s situation.

Leadership also means knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Know your leadership style and what works best for you. As a leader there will be times when you fail to lead.

You will assess your own performance and determine that you came up short. Those times are opportunities for you to improve. Ask others to critique how you handled the situation and how you could have done better. Share your strengths with others, whatever they may be. Improve on your weaknesses, or hire employees to fill those gaps.

These principles are what I have learned from 30 years in various leadership positions. And they apply whether you wear a skirt or a suit and tie.

How about some keys to developing women leaders for the 21st Century? Well, for starters, one critical key is education. Think back to the leaders of past generations and particularly those from the Greatest Generation.

For decades, these men benefited from the G.I. Bill to better educate themselves to move up the corporate ladder. Whether veterans or civilians, there are a multitude of tuition assistance programs that can help fund the cost of an education. Past generations didn’t hesitate to increase their knowledge and skills to become more marketable in a competitive economy that rewards higher learning with higher earning.

I would encourage any woman on the fence about whether to pursue additional education to take advantage of every opportunity to learn more, whether it’s a full-fledged path to a college degree or obtaining certification in a specific skill.

The message of educational attainment has already reached many women around the country, according to the U.S. Census. In 2011, women surpassed men in gaining advanced college degrees for the first time. (10.6 million women with a master’s degree or higher compared to 10.5 million men) Women first passed men in the number of bachelor’s degrees in 1996. This latest educational milestone for women follows a trend since the early 1980s when women began to exceed men in college enrollment.

While levels of education continue to trend upward for women, equal pay for equal work has yet to be accomplished. In 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics within the U.S. Department of Labor reported women’s median weekly earnings to be 81 percent of men’s. Please don’t be deterred, however, because this discrepancy in pay will eventually disappear as we develop more and more women leaders.

Many of those women leaders are serving in greater numbers than ever before in government with the power to enact change. One-fifth of the members of the United States Senate are women. The 20 senators currently serving in the 113th Congress are the most ever in U.S. history. A total of 78 Congresswomen serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is also the most ever.

These continued advances in public service makes “The Year of Woman” in 1992 when five women were elected U.S. Senators seem silly in hindsight and shortsighted as to the milestones to come.

Interestingly though, the number of women serving in the Ohio General Assembly is not expanding like its federal counterpart and has, in fact, contracted ever so slightly compared to the high water mark in 1995. In that year, according to a demographics study by the Legislative Service Commission, a total of 32 women served in the Senate and House combined. In the current 130th General Assembly, a total of 31 women serve in both chambers combined, including Rep. Heard.

Another aspect of developing women leaders concerns the power of women mentoring other women, something that women historically have not been good at, although that may be changing for the better.

A story last year in Bloomberg Businessweek cited two recent studies as evidence. A 2012 ongoing study of 742 MBA graduates found that women were better than men at helping women AND men succeed within their organizations. A 2011 survey of 7,280 leaders in the U.S. and around the world rated women better than men at mentoring.

Author Selena Rezvani addressed this “women versus women” phenomenon in her 2009 book “The Next Generation of Women Leaders.” The author cited examples of workplace friction between women, especially those who climbed ever higher in the corporate structure. But, the author quoted a former fashion retailer chief financial officer who had observed an understanding develop among women over the last seven to 10 years that it was in everyone’s best interest for women to support each other.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, launched an initiative earlier this month – Lean In dot org – to help women achieve their workplace goals, and mentoring is a big part of it.

One of the three ways Lean In hopes to support women is through Lean In Circles. These small groups are designed to meet monthly to encourage colleagues “in an atmosphere of confidentiality and trust.” Lean In provides the materials and support, including online spaces that make it easy for members to stay up-to-date and connected.

The release of Sandberg’s book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” coincides with the nonprofit startup. She writes that: “While women continue to outpace men in educational achievement, we have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry. This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect our world, the voices of women are not heard equally.”

Whether the stereotype that women don’t help other women persists or is being transformed into mythical status on a large scale remains to be seen. You can make an impact by serving as mentor here at DSCC, if you are not already.

Taking a colleague under your wing may be a cliché, but it’s still a practice I urge you to adopt. In showing another the way, you are helping that person avoid the missteps and mistakes you experienced to your current position. Think of how you would have benefited had you connected with a mentor. If you were fortunate enough to learn at the knee of a mentor, honor that person by becoming one yourself.

Outside organizations also have an important role to play in developing women leaders. I encourage you to get involved in a community organization.

There are so many choices from which to choose. It could be the League of Women Voters, or the Chamber of Commerce, or an alumni group, or a professional organization, or the PTA. Whatever interests you have, there’s a group for you. Many communities also have a group specifically designed with developing leadership skills in mind. They are cleverly and originally called Leadership Dublin or Leadership Medina County. I encourage you to seek out this professional development opportunity.

The point of all these groups is to spur men and women to invest in their communities and work toward the betterment of them.

To close, I thought it might be instructive to share a little bit about my leadership career path.

To be quite honest, it’s been more like a winding road than a straight and narrow one. I’ve had to explore my leadership potential and develop my own leadership style even before those quote-unquote leadership roles materialized.

Obviously my law degree opened many opportunities for public service work as a magistrate, judge, county prosecutor, lieutenant governor and member of the Supreme Court of Ohio. I’ve served in all those roles, but one job didn’t necessarily lead to another. However, each step along the way prepared me for another. And, I was fortunate to do well at every step so the doors of opportunity remained open.

I also paid attention and learned from my mentors and colleagues. So I would encourage you to absorb what others can teach you. Whether it’s positive or negative, there are lessons to be had in just about every situation.

It’s also important to excel in whatever position you currently hold. By doing so opportunities will come your way. And don’t be afraid to take a risk and seize the opportunity.

As we continue to seek out ways to develop women leaders for the 21st century, it’s interesting to see how this topic was viewed 100 years ago.

In the early 20th century, many Ohioans believed that the then current state constitution was outdated. In 1910 Ohio voters approved the calling of a Constitutional Convention, which began in January 1912.

Delegates from all over the state gathered in Columbus to consider whether to create a new Constitution or simply enact amendments to the current version. Part of their discussion centered on the women’s suffrage movement and whether it was even appropriate to have a woman in government.

Some of the exchanges on this topic are quite revealing about how far we have come in how women are viewed. In the notes to the convention, it is recorded that one Mr. Bowdle incredulously asks a fellow delegate if he believes it is a natural right for a woman to be – “for illustration” – president of the United States or chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio. He voiced a concern about their ability to reason by asking the delegate to whom he was speaking “who would consent to try a case before a jury or judge who was ruled by intuition.”

Mr. Read responds with: “I don’t know but that I would. Intuition sometimes is a good deal better than the reasoning of some men.”

Another delegate, a Mr. Fitzsimons, also comments on this foreign concept by agreeing that while it might be incongruous to have women sitting in the presidential chair or on the supreme bench it might be a “welcome change to the specimens of officials that they were then compelled to view.”

What would Mr. Bowdle and Mr. Fitzsimons say to not only a woman chief justice but to a bench, the majority of whom are women??

It’s amazing how times have changed and it only took about 100 years.

Thank you for your time and attention, and thank you for taking a leading role in developing women leaders for the 21st century.