- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Q&A: Wendy Sherman

| Fall/Winter 2018-2019

Ambassador and Belfer Center Senior Fellow Wendy R. Sherman, the former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, will lead HKS’s Center for Public Leadership and become a professor of the practice of public leadership in January. Sherman, who negotiated with the North Koreans and the Iranians on nuclear issues, is the author of Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence. She spoke with us while traveling in sunny California—and having second thoughts about relocating to icy Cambridge.

Q: What have you learned about the relationship women have to power?

“Women, it must be said, have a strange relationship with power. We aren’t afraid of it necessarily, but we seem more comfortable with informal power than institutional power. I once did a study with another social work student, looking at the evolution of leadership in neighborhood organizations. Most often those organizations were started by women who, in order to protect their children, wanted the city to install a traffic light at a busy intersection, or worried about safe drinking water for their families. Women got busy and got the job done, without asking whether they could do so, when they could do something for someone else. As soon as their efforts had attracted the backing of grants and donors—that is, at the point that advocacy became an organization—men invariably stepped in. Whether elected or self-appointed, men became the head of the organization once the women had built it.

Guys rarely question whether they can do the next job up. A widely cited internal study done by Hewlett-Packard in 2017 showed that men will apply for a job when they have 60 percent of the qualifications for the post; women will do so only when they can show that they have all of them.

It’s an open question precisely why women continue to deny their own capabilities, despite the past century of feminist activism. We know that women are still told to be quiet, and that we are still interrupted when we don’t comply. We know that men are told to push themselves forward while women are told to hang back. We worry when we are given more responsibility or more power, and too often we still believe that we don’t know enough, aren’t skilled enough, aren’t substantive enough, to do what the job we are applying for requires. When I became the Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs at the State Department, I’d already run a congressional representative’s office and a Senate campaign and served as Executive Director of both EMILY’s List and the Democratic National Committee during a national presidential campaign (Mike Dukakis’). My résumé was among the most accomplished in Washington. Yet when the job was offered to me, I was completely overwhelmed by what I didn’t know.”

Q: What are some of the leading challenges and opportunities for mentoring the next generation of leaders at Harvard?

What I think is so extraordinary about young people today is they have a renewed sense of passion, activism, and engagement. We’ve seen that in the last election, which featured more young people voting. HKS has long had a mission of supporting, mentoring, and encouraging the leaders that we’ll need tomorrow. From cyber security to artificial intelligence, the future policy challenges are enormous. Both CPL and Belfer must make sure that the leaders we’re preparing for tomorrow understand these issues, plan for these issues, and understand how they’re going to affect our day-to-day lives.

David Gergen has done a phenomenal job as CPL director, ensuring that we have a diverse range of fellows. And I know that President Larry Bacow and Dean Doug Elmendorf are committed to a Harvard that really reflects the diversity of our country. We have to reach out beyond Cambridge to understand day-to-day lives. We can’t just be the 1% for the 1%. It’s going to take concrete effort by all of us, and it’s going to be tough. But look at this incoming Congress. It looks more like America and America’s future.”

Q: What excites you most about teaching, serving, and leading at Harvard?

“The people who come to HKS come with a lot of hope, optimism, and ambition, but also a commitment to provide great public service here in the U.S. and around the world. I’m really looking forward to being energized by that vision. And I’m looking forward to bringing some of my real-world experience to deepen their capabilities to meet today’s diverse challenges.”

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For Academic Citation:

"Q&A: Wendy Sherman." Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (Fall/Winter 2018-2019).