Right before Carly Fiorina, the first woman CEO of a Fortune 20 company, began her first day as CEO of Hewlett-Packard in 1999, she prepared for questions she thought she might receive regarding innovation and future growth of the company.
After all, she was the first outsider and non-engineer to lead the company, so she wanted to think about those important questions.
Instead, she was asked something different.
“The very first question a reporter asked me was, is that an Armani suit you’re wearing?’” Fiorina said. “In the course of that day, I got asked the question of the glass ceiling over, and over and over. And I said, ‘there is no glass ceiling.’ And people were taken aback by that answer. They thought what I meant by that was that I didn’t understand how hard it was, that I didn’t understand prejudice or bias or inequities.”
Fiorina said she did understand that, as she has experienced it, and meant something different from her answer.
“What I meant to say is that women can do anything they choose, even when there are obstacles in the way, women can do anything,” Fiorina said.
FIORINA SHARED THIS STORY, along with other insight on breaking the glass ceiling, at the latest installment of “American Women: The Long and Winding Road” at the Workhouse Prison Museum in Lorton on April 2.
The panelists, which also included Margaret Selwood of the Venable LLP law firm and Bobby Thornburg, the president of the Management Analysis Technologies, recognized that there has been a lot of progress, as more women are beginning to pursue higher-level roles.
Selwood said she has not faced overt discrimination in the workplace in which she was prohibited from certain tasks because she was a woman.
“I do think there is an underlying gender bias when it comes to networking and business development,” Selwood said.
Thornburg spoke to the progress women are seeing in the military, including the recent decision to allow women in combat roles, although a discussion regarding the high rates of sexual assault women in the military face was absent from the panel.
Thornburg acknowledged that when a woman chooses to leave the military, she is unable to re-enter later on. This can make it impossible for women to be stay-at-home moms and then return to their career in the military.
According to Thornburg, the biggest issue facing women today is the lack of an Equal Rights Amendment, which he supports.
“Until you have legal rights and protections under the constitution of this land, you will not be seen as equals,” he said.
PANELISTS also demonstrated their belief that a great deal of progress has been made in terms of breaking the glass ceiling in the United States.
“This is still the only country in the world where a young woman can start as a secretary, and become the CEO of the largest technology company in the world. It is not possible anywhere else in the world, because we do believe in human potential here,” Fiorina said.
The United States, however, is ranked 98th in the world in terms of the percentage of women represented in its legislative body. Rwanda, Cuba, and Afghanistan are among the countries that have a higher percentage of women in their legislature than the United States.
And, in the United States, only 19 percent of those in Congress are women.
Fiorina acknowledged that there is still progress to be made.
“It is still different for us. We are scrutinized differently, we are criticized differently,” Fiorina said. “I’ve come to learn over my life, though, that you cannot do anything without being criticized.”
Beyond justice and diversity, Fiorina said, women should be given the same opportunities as men, because it’s the smart thing to do.
“We have talked about women’s rights in the context of what’s right, what’s fair. We’ve talked about it in the context of diversity, of inclusion, of justice. And all of those things are right and all of those things are true. But I believe we now need to talk about it in terms of enlightened self-interest,” Fiorina said.
The final installment of the series will be on April 30, and will feature a panel discussing equality.