During the 2016 presidential campaign, while she was serving as Hillary Clinton’s director of communications, Jennifer Palmieri experienced two revelations: one political, one personal. She noticed female candidates were being held to higher standards than men. And she realized that by trying to succeed in a man’s world, she had been shying away from asking for what she deserved.
In her new book, She Proclaims, she explores why women’s gains in the workplace have “sputtered out,” and offers a roadmap to freedom from the constraints that have held them back for so long. Here are takeaways:
Katie Couric: In the “preamble” of your book, you write, “One hundred years after women won suffrage, we still live in a world where men hold the vast majority of power and women are consistently undervalued relative to them… it is time to declare our independence and proclaim the start of an exciting new era for women.” What was your “aha moment” that it was time for a new approach?
Jennifer Palmieri: Honestly, the entire 2016 campaign felt like one long “aha moment” of women being held to a higher standard than men. But I also had a personal epiphany in a 2016 off-air conversation with the MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski.
I was complaining about how low campaign salaries were, when she interrupted me to say “I can tell right now you aren’t being paid what you are worth.” I was really taken aback. I had not told her what I was making or how it compared with what others on the campaign were making. And while I cannot remember word for word all she told me, this one phrase she said remains very clear in my mind: “It’s written all over your face.” She could tell just by looking at me that I was the one who would make it all work, would never drop a ball, would never complain about what I got paid. I was just glad to be there.
What she said to me was devastating, because she took everything I thought made me valuable in the workplace and turned it on its head. And it was devastating because I knew in an instant that she was right. She forced me to face the truth that I wasn’t doing so great in a man’s world. I was doing great making a man’s world run well for them, by keeping my head down and working hard to keep things running smoothly. It was not only not getting me anywhere, it was actually propping up and perpetuating power systems that keep women and all people of color from gaining true success.
It’s why I called the book She Proclaims. I wanted to force women to say this stuff out loud. We have internalized so many messages that tell us that we are not as interesting as men, or as valuable as men and that we have to try to dress like them and speak like them to fit in. That is by definition a man’s world and women must declare our independence from it.
You say following a man’s model is untenable and that our dependence on such a model has only perpetuated a system that keeps men in power. What do you mean by that? Can you give some examples?
Women make the world run, but men are still running the world. Millions of women work hard to make profits for their employers in corporate America, but only 7 percent of Fortune 500 company CEOs are women. More women are working in television news but, with the exception of CBS, all of the television news networks are run by men and have always been run by men. Congress is still made up of 75 percent men. It’s bonkers.
No matter how hard women work, we can’t seem to move the needle when it comes to putting more women in charge. For many decades attempting to model ourselves after men seemed to work. We made steady gains in the workplace, but in recent years we seemed to have sputtered out. Following a man’s path has turned into our rut. Chapter by chapter, She Proclaims identifies the biases and behaviors that are serving to keep us in that rut and gives women advice for changes.
It seems women’s progress has plateaued and you give some pretty depressing examples. But aren’t there some reasons to celebrate as well?
Absolutely. I work in politics, and I have been really inspired by the historic number of women who are running for office at all levels of government. After Hillary lost in 2016, I was worried that her experience would chill other women from running. I could not imagine women watching what she went through and think, “Oh, sign me up for that!” But, that’s exactly what happened. At our core, women know we deserve better and believe in ourselves too much to tolerate stagnation any longer. I see millions of women in America waking up to the same realization I had — this man’s world was never our destination. We have nothing more to prove. We are moving on — fortified by all we have learned here — and are going to create our own space.
My dad used to say, “Women are their own worst enemies.” Do you think that’s true, and how do we change that?
It has been true, and it’s what we have to change now. For too long, women have been buying into the notion that we are in competition with each other for a finite amount of success. We have to banish that notion from our heads or we will make it true because, like most mistaken beliefs, it is self-perpetuating. If we are pitting ourselves against each other, there’s no way we are ever going to make progress.
Here’s the transformation I had to make in my own life. In my career, I always tried to support women. This was something I used to do out of a sense of obligation and with some misgivings that the woman I was helping might end up outshining or even replacing me. Now, supporting women is my mission. I know sustained progress for each of us is dependent upon other women being valued and succeeding.
When I ran the communications departments in the Obama White House and for the Clinton campaign, I made hiring women — and particularly women of color — a priority. I knew having diverse teams would make our work better, but I did not foresee the ways these women would enrich me. I learn from them, they inspire me, and they always have my back. They are not my competitors. They are my support system.
I want people to buy and read your book, so I don’t want to give everything away…but can you tell us three fundamental changes that you advocate for that will finally even the playing field?
Support women. It’s the most empowering change you can make. Women in the room begets more women in the room and that begets more opportunity for us all. Say what you believe, particularly when you know it’s not what a woman is expected to say. Do this to contribute your best thinking to the word and honor the generations of women who came before us who were silenced. Do not settle for less than you deserve. When you do that, you are diminishing the value of all women. Stop expecting to do worse than the men and don’t accept it when it happens.
Books purchased through our Book Shop links might earn us affiliate revenue. Katie Couric Media will donate those proceeds.
This originally appeared on Medium.com