Women leaders in legislatures nationwide are at an all-time high—but still only represent 26% of leadership positions. “While numbers are at their highest, we’ve still got a long way to go,” says Maria Garcia Berry, founder-partner of the public affairs firm CRL Associates.
Garcia Berry served as moderator for the 2022 NCSL Legislative Summit session “Lessons in Leadership: Women in the C-Suite,” where panelists shared their career paths, insights and advice. They all came to their roles via different avenues, and offered tips on how they got to positions of power that are not common for most women.
Getting Started: ‘Why Not You?’
Colorado Rep. Leslie Herod (D), the first African American LGBTQ person to hold elective office in the state, serves as chair of the Black Caucus, as a member of the Joint Budget Committee and as chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. She says she entered politics as a legislative aid and intern because she wanted to be involved with her community, in part because of the example set by her mother, an officer in the Army. She points to amazing mentors, including several from the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women, as inspirations, as well.
“When I went to their conference as a fellow, I was shocked that there were so many Black women holding esteemed leadership positions in their states,” she says. “I was proud of them and impressed by the work that they were doing. And it was those moments in seeing that leadership in action that got me thinking that I didn’t need to just be staff, I could actually be that elected official that maybe I didn’t dream to be because I couldn’t see it yet.”
If you show up and are willing to take on some risky challenges that stretch you and provide the opportunity for you to learn, and maybe fail—which is OK—you will get noticed. —Donna Lynne, incoming CEO of Denver Health Hospital
Angela Baier, the CEO of CollegeInvest & College Assist, Colorado’s 529 college savings program, grew up in a small town in central Kansas in the 1970s. Options for women after high school, at least as she was raised and taught, she says, were extremely limited. But after telling a male mentor she was going to college to study home economics to find a wealthy husband, he looked her in the eye and said, “Why not you?”
“Those words have changed the entire trajectory of my life,” she says. “When I went on to become the youngest department head in Best Western’s corporate history, I thought, ‘Why not me?’ When I became the first female president of the Denver Zoo, I thought, ‘Why not me?’ … As a female in the financial industry managing millions of dollars, mostly with male board members: ‘Why not me?’”
Donna Lynne recalls playing basketball as a girl before Title IX, and having to play six-on-six in a dress, where you couldn’t cross center court because girls weren’t considered strong enough to run back and forth. “I was just infuriated,” she says. “It was a daily activity I was being told I couldn’t do. And so, I said, well, I know there’s never been a woman president—I’m just going to be the first woman president. Of course, I ended up being the president of something other than what I had thought.”
Lynne, a former Colorado lieutenant governor and chief operating officer, will soon depart her position as COO of the nonprofit University Medical Center in New York to take over as CEO of Denver Health Hospital. She has zigzagged a lot throughout her career, she says, from finance to labor to health care to operations, but notes, saying “yes” has helped her along the way.
“If you show up and are willing to take on some risky challenges that stretch you and provide the opportunity for you to learn, and maybe fail—which is OK—you will get noticed. And that is a great springboard for careers as opposed to playing it safe.”
Overcoming Obstacles: Get Uncomfortable
Janine Davidson, president of Metropolitan State University of Denver, began her career as an Air Force officer and cargo pilot and was the first woman to fly the Air Force’s tactical C-130. Appointed by then-President Barack Obama, she served as the 32nd undersecretary of the U.S. Navy.
There is a certain power, she says, in being underestimated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t vexing.
The more we see women in these positions, the more we see we all have different styles. —Janine Davidson, president, Metropolitan State University of Denver
“What used to really frustrate me was when people would presume I was the token—‘Oh, you’re only on that board because they needed a woman,’” she says. She recalls getting ready for her confirmation hearing as undersecretary, and hearing a friend say, “I knew they were looking for a woman.”
She had to tell herself she was, in fact, more than qualified and deserved the position. “But I had to say that to myself first,” she says. “Then you get to a certain point in your career where it doesn’t affect you and there’s a calm confidence in that.” Once she got to the Pentagon, she had her first women bosses and mentors. “The more we see women in these positions, the more we see we all have different styles.”
Baier, meanwhile, held her first leadership role at age 23—as a young, blond woman who enjoyed wearing high heels, she says. She is no stranger to being spoken over or saying something in a meeting that’s ignored until a man says it—and then he’s congratulated for “his” idea.
As the first female president of the Denver Zoo in 1994, she was excited to present at her first board meeting, she says, when the executive assistant told her that, rather than sit at the table, she needed to take a chair against the wall. “Women literally did not have a seat at the table,” she says. But she moved to the table anyway and changed that culture. “Do not be afraid to speak up, to hold your own and to speak louder,” she says.
Want to Make Change? Be Prepared.
“The path to leadership as an elected official is not an easy one,” Herod says. “It’s almost easier to get elected than to rise in the ranks of leadership. And what I will say is, No. 1, be prepared. So, as you think about where you need to go to be most effective for your community, be prepared.”
Herod says she was lucky to be able to build a coalition of Black legislators and staffers to support her. But she also credits passing over 150 bills into law since 2016 to her beginnings as a nonpartisan staffer.
“Really understanding how things worked, being a fly on the wall, sometimes being unseen, was extremely helpful when I took the reins to become leadership,” she says. But, while building coalitions is important, she says, so is going into places where we are uncomfortable.
A Democrat, she went to the Republican rooms and to the Senate leaders. “I said, ‘I know that we have common ground somewhere: Let’s find it together. And I’m going to come to your office every Friday until we find it.’ And we did and passed some quite pivotal legislation together.”
Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.