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Whatever Works

Supporting, Not Supporting Cast: Michelle Patterson Talks Women in the Workplace

Michelle Patterson, CEO of Women Network, talks passionately about making the workforce more conducive to women, especially mothers like herself, and offering support.

April 10, 2014
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Values, Corporate Culture, Talent Management, Workplace Culture

It’s been a few years shy of a century since the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed giving women the right to vote. But progress takes time — a lot of time apparently.

Despite a 40-plus-year concerted effort to bring equality for women to the workplace, if a recent study from the Center for American Progress is correct, it will be another 71 years before women reach parity with men in leadership roles in this country.

To get a better understanding of the problems facing women in the workforce today, I spoke with Michelle Patterson, a women’s advocate Michelle Patterson, Women Network, April 10, 2014who is CEO of the Women Network, an organization designed to help empower women. We spoke on April 7, the day before Equal Pay Day, a day designed to show how much into the next year a woman has to work to earn what a man earns in a single year. Some say women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, but others dispute that.

Patterson is also president of the California Women’s Conference, which used to be held by the governor’s office as the California Governor & First Lady’s Conference until a few years ago.

Patterson talks passionately about making the workforce more conducive to women, especially mothers like herself, and offering support. She relayed a story about her son visiting his friend’s house. The friend has nine siblings, and the mom cooked a heaping helping of hotcakes for everyone. “My Mom doesn’t make pancakes,” Patterson quoted her son as saying. “My Mom is not a very good cook.” But instead of taking the opportunity to take a dig at Patterson, who admittedly “burns toast,” the mom instead said, “Your Mom is helping other moms,” and everyone has different talents. It was a message of support that clearly meant a lot to Patterson and one that she would like to see more of in the workplace as well.

This year’s conference, which will be held May 19 and 20 at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, features such speakers as “The Huffington Post’s” Arianna Huffington, former “Today” host Jane Pauley and “Chicken Soup for the Soul” author Jack Canfield.

Below is an edited transcript of our discussion.

Whatever Works: Are you surprised inequality in the workforce is still an issue in 2014?

Michelle Patterson: Yes. I think a lot of it, too, is how we’re able to really organize women so that they have access to these resources and tools that are available out there to pursue these different roles and positions. Right now we talk about it, but being able to make those tools and resources available so that women know which organizations to approach if they want to go into public office or if they want to take on responsibilities within a corporation.

And I think, for me, on a personal note, I look at an example most recently that I had where women have to make decisions between whether they are able to do something in relation to work or if they are having something with their family pop up. And so, for me, I just had the honor of being asked to speak at the United Nations. Huge honor. And they had said the date is Feb. 26, and so I had to decline it. My daughter’s birthday was that same day, and she was turning 16. I knew I didn’t want to be on the East Coast and miss her birthday, and I wanted to make sure that I was there for that. So the U.N. came back and said, ‘Bring her. Bring her with you.’ … I got to do both. So it was neat because, when I did that, she [her daughter] got nudged to stand up, and in the very back there was a lady that ended up singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. So the entire U.N. ended up singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. It was really, really neat, and then one of the ambassadors got up and he said, ‘In all my years of being at the U.N., I’ve never heard them sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ And he said, ‘That’s why women need to be involved is they create moments.’

WW: I was recently reading a story about the CEO of Claire’s, which is basically a store for young women and girls, and the story caught my attention because it said the CEO, who was a man, resigned. I know obviously you want the best person possible to run the company, but does that strike you as odd that a man would be running a store geared toward young women?

Patterson: No. And I think, again, it goes back to having that balance between looking at the talent pool. When you look at the talent pool and what’s available, only half of the talent pool is getting tapped, and that’s men. And I love the quote Warren Buffet says [about tapping into the full-potential of women in the workforce]. … When you are looking up the entire demographic, you’re looking at both men and women. That’s when you’re going to get the best candidate.

WW: Let’s talk a little bit about Marissa Mayer. I know she was criticized after her baby was born when she brought a nursery into her office at Yahoo. Is that an unjust criticism?

Patterson: It’s interesting there was [another female executive who is] one of the top, top individuals in Silicon Valley who just got an award. … So my comment was, ‘Let’s send a press release out. Let’s go ahead and celebrate this. This is great.’ What’s happening right now is women need to have actual role models, physical role models that they can look to and go, ‘Hey, that person’s doing that.’ And so when I said that to this COO, the comment back she had is, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to brag. I don’t want to put that out there. I don’t want to be a target.’ And I thought that was just such an interesting choice of words.

WW: What did she mean by target?

Patterson: Meaning what happens is that you end up being a target in that you don’t have the support, like Marissa. … What she was doing was making it conducive for her and her family so that she could still play a role as CEO and be able to do the things that she wanted to do for the company without having to make a choice. … That’s where I think she [Mayer] was making that effort, and then ends up being a target where people don’t agree with it. … I think that people — women in particular — can be very critical and jump in and be critical of one another.

WW: So you’re saying that female CEOs are more under the microscope than male CEOs?

Patterson: What I’m saying is if we can stop doing the, ‘You’re not doing it right’ or ‘You should be doing this or doing this’ and rather come at it from a supportive component. …

And by women doing what they’re doing, and kind of stepping into this and finding that balance, and what will happen is it will open the doors for men that are in these CEO positions that have been missing opportunities in their own personal lives, where they’ve not been able to participate. But because those doors are getting opened, and instead of doing the comparisons, we’re actually supporting one another. …

That to me is the underlining theme and message for a workforce. Rather than coming at it from a ‘You’re not doing it right or you’re doing it wrong,’ it’s we can come at it with: ‘How do we support each other?’

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