Advancing Women of Color in Transatlantic Leadership
“There are a lot of clouds outside, but when I walked into this room, I see the sun is shining,” remarked Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) on September 29, 2016, to a full house of women leaders of color from across sectors committed to building their transatlantic portfolios. The Congresswoman was speaking at The German Marshall Fund of the United States’s (GMF) Washington DC headquarters about her experiences both as a leader in transatlantic policy and as a woman of color who has served in key decision-making roles with international impact as a Member of Congress for 20 years. The event, titled “Advancing Women of Color in Transatlantic Leadership,” brought together guests and speakers to discuss the development of an inter-generational leadership pipeline to foster support and community among women of color from senior leaders to rising talent.
GMF President Dr. Karen Donfried opened the discussion with a note about the unique historic opportunity to move forward the agenda for women’s equity in transatlantic leadership as the 2016 U.S. election presents the possibility that three powerful women may be guiding transatlantic relations soon, in the U.S., U.K., and Germany. She encouraged the group to consider how to seize this historic opportunity and gain momentum.
Over 65 women convened to share their experiences and insights related to policymaking, building social capital in the U.S. and abroad, and diversity in transatlantic leadership. Reta Jo Lewis, director of Congressional Affairs and senior resident fellow at GMF, introduced Colonel Dana Nelson IMA to the Chief in the Air Advisor Branch of the U.S. Air Force, who reflected on the current lack of mentorship for young black women in the military and how to address this imbalance. She described her own positive experience as a minority leader in the Air Force, while noting that discrimination can nevertheless be subtly subversive for women of color. She observed, “When you walk into a room you aren’t automatically dismissed, but you are underestimated.” She urged the audience to outperform, and to forge their own networks to support others who may be isolated as a result of their unique identities.
Other powerful speakers on the roster, from U.S. Ambassadors to nonprofit and corporate leaders, deepened the discussion of identity and its role in bolstering diversity in transatlantic leadership. Farah Pandith, former Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the U.S. Department of State, shared her experiences serving at once as an American, a woman, and a Muslim, and how these distinct, yet interconnected, identities prepared her for her diplomatic position. “As an American who celebrates diversity and understands our constitution,” Pandith elucidated, “I was also able to speak honestly about things that aren’t going well, and that gave me credibility in talking about the things that are going well.”
The discussion of exclusion and isolation was pointed with an aim to finding solutions. Participants occupying top leadership positions observed the lack of a community for women of color in an environment built for others. At the same time, there was enthusiasm and optimism that these senior level women could act as guides and mentors for the rising generation of female leaders. Inspired with a sense of purpose, guests continued forging this connection over networking sessions sponsored by The Kaleidoscope Group.
As several senior speakers observed, at the time they were starting their careers, the opportunities for mentorship and innovation within an inclusive community that reflected their unique identities were practically nonexistent. But as a generation of women has forged a path to senior leadership, the next step is to seek out rising talent and secure a place at the table for women of color who bring unique discipline, experience, and perspectives.
In response to a question about building this growing network of women of color in senior roles, Dr. Donfried noted, “Everyone in this room is a role model for that next generation of women who is stepping into these roles.” Though this seminar was only a short introduction to the work that still needs to be done, it was a significant step in building a pipeline for the future.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.