The Biggest Danger Women Pose to the Status Quo

Pat Mitchell
Start 2020 strong with Pat Mitchell, first female president of CNN Productions and PBS, co-founder and curator of TEDWomen, global advocate for women’s rights, and author of Becoming a Dangerous Woman.

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Professional women are often encouraged to find a mentor, to be a sponsor, and to lift each other up. What is the power of women connecting with other women? Pat Mitchell is a serial ceiling smasher, groundbreaking media icon, and the co-founder of TEDWomen. She says her many mentees are part of her legacy, and that the biggest danger women pose to the status quo is working together. She shares what she’s learned about effectively mentoring and coaching and the transformative impact of gathering women.

This Month’s Guest:

PAT MITCHELL is a lifelong advocate for women and girls, is the co-founder, curator and host of TEDWomen. At every step of her career, Mitchell has broken new ground for women, leveraging the power of media first as a journalist, then as an Emmy award-winning and Oscar-nominated producer to tell women’s stories and increase the representation of women onscreen and off. Transitioning to an executive role, she became the president of CNN Productions, then the first woman president and CEO of PBS, and the Paley Center for Media. She is chair of the Sundance Institute and the Women’s Media Center boards and a trustee of the VDAY movement, the Skoll Foundation and the Acumen Fund. She is an advisor to Participant Media and served as a congressional appointment to The American Museum of Women’s History Advisory Council. In 2014, the Women’s Media Center honored Mitchell with its first-annual Lifetime Achievement Award, now named in her honor to commend other women whose media careers advance the representation of women. Mitchell is a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Georgia and earned a master’s degree in English literature and several honorary doctorate degrees. She is the author of Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World. @patmitchell


Our Host:

Celeste HeadleeCELESTE HEADLEE is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Heard Mentality and We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me MoreTalk of the NationAll Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @celesteheadlee

View Transcript

Celeste Headlee: Hi, I’m Celeste Headlee. Welcome to Women Amplified from the Conferences for Women. In this podcast, we have conversations with all kinds of brilliant women and men, people who have found some innovative strategies that help them, and might possibly help you, not just in your career, but at home, as well. Today, Pat Mitchell. She started her career as a journalist and then an Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated producer. She became the president of CNN productions and then the CEO of PBS, as well as the chair of the Sundance Institute and the Women’s Media Center board. She also co founded and created the TEDWomen Conference. Her new book is called Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World.

Celeste Headlee: In one of the events that you had talking about your book, I read in a report that after you gave the explanation of Dangerous, Jane Fonda stood up and said, “I’m even older than Pat, so I’m even more dangerous.” And I want to talk about this idea of the power of older women, which can seem contradictory, because we have not in generations past seen older women as powerful. They’ve often been ignored and overlooked. What is the-

Pat Mitchell: No question.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah. What is the unique power of an older woman? Do you think?

Pat Mitchell: There is unique power in being of a certain age, as I like to call it, on the dangerous side of 50. Of which by the way, there are more of us and more of us coming into that dangerous side of 50 every year than any other single segment of the population. So we have the potential, as Jane said in her book Prime Times, that we have the potential to become the most dangerous population on earth. I think she said “powerful population on earth.” And part of the reason for that is that at a certain age when the children are grown or when careers have been established, we are in a position where we’re no longer trying to prove ourselves; we have less to lose, yes in many ways; and we’re more willing to take the risk; and often we have more time and more focus.

Pat Mitchell: But I don’t believe that Dangerous is about a certain age. All you have to do is look at what’s happening in the world today, from Jane Fonda at 82 leading fire drill Fridays to bring the world’s attention to climate change to Greta and all the climate who at 15 and 16 are challenging all of us to take more risk and to step forward and take action. So, I see, at each end of the age spectrum, I see women and girls stepping up to leadership in ways that are potentially world-changing.

Celeste Headlee: Do you think women have changed in recent years, at least in terms of their relationship with public speech and what they’re willing to talk about and how aggressive they are in talking about it? I say this because there have been a lot of books written about women’s anger and expressing anger and the Women’s March that became the largest protest march in history. I wonder if you think women are more likely to speak up in recent years.

Pat Mitchell: I do think, and I have witnessed and observed this all over the world, that women are seeing where the current paradigm of power has led us. We are living in dangerous times with racism, violence against women and girls, sexism on the rise, and empathy, and compassion in decline. And this is a result of the predominant power and who holds it, and that has not been women. So women are now realizing that in order to shift the direction we’re going in, we are going to have to step up to leadership and not only stepping up to leadership, but what I’m observing and spending a lot of my time working towards is women fully embracing all of ourselves, all that we are, all of our experiences and bringing them to bear to not only take leadership and claim our power, but to do power differently.

Pat Mitchell: And that is what’s going to be the world changing event is when women step into power, use it and share it, and change the nature of power. As the great Congresswoman Bella Abzug predicted we would many, many years ago, she predicted that women will change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women. And that’s what I’m seeing. I’m seeing women become leaders in their villages, their communities, and hopefully, in this country at some point, but they certainly have in other countries. And while not every woman leader has used power in that way, many have modeled the old power paradigm, because that’s what they knew. But more and more, I’m seeing women step into leadership and bring all of their experiences as women, mothers, sisters, daughters, wives to bear and making decisions and setting priorities that are, in fact, shifting the direction in their villages and countries and communities.

Celeste Headlee: How do we make sure, especially women who are in some of the more developed countries, how do we make sure that the platform and the voices are diverse? I mean, what we have seen is that society is more willing to listen to white women, for example, than women of color. And so how do you make room for those voices that are often not welcomed at the table?

Pat Mitchell: Well, I’ve been saying a lot, and I believe it by the way, I think it’s time for white women to step aside and let black women lead. They know and are bringing a completely different perspective to leadership. That all you have to do is look at leadership in Africa, where I spend a lot of time. And many of the countries there have had the good sense to create parliaments and leading the ministries, as well as presidents and prime ministers, to be women. And in those countries you are seeing different kinds of leadership evolve. And in this country, communities of color stepping up and bringing their experiences, their viewpoints, their insights, their ideas is starting to change the whole political paradigm. Not enough, clearly not enough. But as that starts to happen, I think, that’s when we’re going to really see the shifts in changing the nature of power.

Pat Mitchell: So the other challenge in the developing world is getting these communities, all of us, working more closely together. And traditionally and historically, that has not been the case, and there have been communities left out of social justice movements. And that’s a big mistake. And we can’t have social justice if we aren’t all included. If we aren’t hearing all voices, respecting all points of view, counting all votes. We know that is not what has been the case many, many times, certainly in the U.S.. But what I’m experiencing now and feeling is a different, not only willingness to, but enthusiasm for creating an entirely different and totally inclusive community of women working together, bringing all that we have from all of our different community experiences to bear.

Celeste Headlee: How does this look on the granular level? Because many of the people listening right now are in workplaces maybe where they have all male leadership or where the very few female leaders in their company are not willing to give a hand up to other women for whatever reason. Or maybe they don’t get maternity leave or they don’t have a nursing room, or any of the many, many issues that sort of impact a woman’s ability to get ahead and succeed. How does this idea about becoming a dangerous woman and being willing to speak up, how does that play out in everyday life?

Pat Mitchell: If we all showed up for one another and agreed that we were going to use whatever power or influence we had as each of us move forward in our lives, if we committed to just doing a couple of things. One of them, dropping the ladder down for the people who are following us, dismantling the barriers that were in our way as we moved forward, so that it’s easier for the people behind us. We would eliminate that horrible story I still hear, “My worst boss was a woman.” That will go away, as a reality, if we start to show up for one another, support one another. I even go so far as to say, “Play the women’s card. Play the race card. Advocate for women of color. Advocate for women for every open position and promotion.” And yes, you’ll be criticized. There will be people who are try and make you step back from that position.

Pat Mitchell: It happened to me over and over again. I was accused of running an affirmative action program at PBS when I hired, my first five hires were five qualified women. And a board member asked me if I was running an affirmative action program. And the same thing happened when on corporate boards when I would say, “There’s an open position, here are five women we should consider,” because the lists that are passed from board to board, the list of people who get promoted, they’re the same old list, unless we, as women leaders, step forward and demand that different names go on those lists. And those issues you mentioned, which are still incredibly important. And here we are, all these many years later, still asking women to work for less doing the same jobs as their male colleagues, not giving women what they need to be working mothers, not recognizing families as an important component of everyone’s life, men and women.

Pat Mitchell: I have seen women leaders, when they got the power and influence to make it happen, making those elements, those new policies and politics priorities. And that’s why I’m optimistic that we will change this if we take the models of the women leaders who have done it. And it has happened. Not enough, because, as you say, there’s still too many instances where women and men are still struggling with companies that don’t recognize the importance of a parenting period, and who don’t accept and implement equal pay for equal work. But who’s going to change it? I believe we can and we will.

Celeste Headlee: It is a little difficult in recent years though, because some of the issues that maybe were just wellbeing issues, inequality issues have become very politicized, meaning that even women on one side of the aisle or the other will decide how they feel about, say healthcare, based on what their party platform is. How do you break through that?

Pat Mitchell: Well, we know it’s not easy because we have hardened the divides. The differences have become more hardened and more difficult to penetrate in this country, in particular. But as I’ve traveled this country, from coast to coast now, talking about the book and making this call to action for all of us to look at each other as colleagues, as allies, and not as competitors and to put the wellbeing of women and girls, which means families too, at the top. And finding, by the way, many, many men who stand with us on this. I have seen a softening of this divide, and I’ve seen women stepping forward to bridge the differences, finding ways to get past these hard and divisive policies to work together. Not as much as it will be necessary, especially in the U.S.. But I could give you many examples of women doing this on a global level.

Pat Mitchell: And I’ll just give you one. In the climate agreements that have been negotiated over the last few years, had it been left up to the men in power in those situations, I don’t think we’d have a global climate agreement. But it was the women coming from different places, different politics too, different countries, different needs, representing different kinds of communities coming together behind the scenes, out of the public spotlight, and getting the negotiations to keep going forward, having the conversations and creating the ways that one side could come to the other side. And I’ve seen that in my work as a journalist covering wars, where women from completely sides of a conflict, will come together and go, “We have to stop this violence. Our husbands need jobs, our children need a future,” and shaping a solution to doing that. So, I believe with all my heart that women will be the ones who bridge these divides that have become so hardened all over the world that has created this polarized environment in which it’s hard to talk about what’s right.

Pat Mitchell: And yes, it has led to anger, but why not righteous anger, at this point, if that’s the beginning of a way in which we can reach across divides and talk to each other. So, I’ve seen enough of it happen over the last 30 years of my career as a journalist and as an activist. And so I’m confident and I have faith that it will begin to happen, even in this country where we have probably never faced such a polarized environment, particularly in the women’s community. But when you start taking away a woman’s right to reproductive choice, when you start taking away a woman’s right to healthcare for herself and her family and when you start challenging a woman’s right to vote and to have that vote counted, I think we’re going to see an uprising of support for each other and therefore for right and reparation.

Celeste Headlee: We do have to grapple. As you say, there’s a large number of men who are absolutely on board with the idea of gender equality. However, there is, among many men, a fear. A fear that is expressed as, “If we promote women, if we pull women up, it means I will lose my position.” That there’s a zero-sum game of success here, and the success of women will necessarily mean that some men will lose their position, will lose power, will lose money. How do you grapple with that? How do you have that conversation with a man who truly is afraid of sharing the portions?

Pat Mitchell: Well, the first thing you do is you combat or you confront his fears with facts. And the fact is that there are two so-called theories that have kept us from changing and moving forward past these barriers. And one of them is exactly the one you articulated, the belief that the power game is a win-lose zero-sum game, that if one group wins another loses. This is absolutely proven not to be the case by all the facts about what happens when companies do bring in more inclusive communities. In other words, reach out to the ones who are not in or who are not winning, to use that winning paradigm, and bring them in, everything gets better. So the gains and the benefits accrued to both sides are to all parties, not just to the ones who are now being included.

Pat Mitchell: If you look at businesses, all the research shows that if you have a more inclusive management, meaning you’re bringing in women and communities of color, you’re going to have better bottom lines. You’re going to have more satisfied customers. You’re going to have better governance and less issues around governance. And if you are a government, we have enough examples in the world now where there are more inclusive parliaments, more inclusive governing bodies, and the same thing is true. You have priorities on the issues that matter to everyone: family health, which you mentioned, and many of the other issues. That a more inclusive government is a more representative government and a more responsive government. So the facts actually, they actually prove the fears to be, not to be … What’s the word I’m looking for? Unfounded. The fears are unfounded. They’re based on an old paradigm and the new paradigm says that the gains and the benefits will be for everyone. That it’s not a win-win, I mean, a win-lose. It is in fact a win-win.

Celeste Headlee: There is a lot, especially on social media, these arguments about what is feminism though, right, and who qualifies. And angry tweets over this one actress isn’t a feminist because they did this particular role. This one Congress person isn’t a feminist, because they voted for this. Where do you come down on this idea of who gets to be called a feminist?

Pat Mitchell: Anyone who’s for social justice for all. Not any one particular group, but everybody. Everybody deserves the rights to, and a just and fair representation and life. That construct, you just mentioned, is just, again, the third biggest barrier holding us back. And that is the one that says, “We are each each other’s competitors.” When I was starting in the television business, we call that “protect your turf.” Everyone was told, “Protect yourself, your little part of the world. Don’t make allies or friends.” And that held us back for a very long time. And that construct is still being taught to young girls who are told at eight, nine and 10 start looking at another girl as a competitor, are criticizing each other. And social media has only made that so much more possible and created some very difficult and damaging situations.

Pat Mitchell: And so that’s the other thing we have to start to dismantle. If we’re going to change the power paradigm and if we’re going to get out of these dangerous times, we certainly have to address that one head on. And see that the way out, the way to better times is to see everyone, to bring everyone in. As long as we’re deciding who qualifies or who should be in a room, instead of everyone whose lives are impacted by the decisions in that room need to be in that room. Everyone who’s against injustice. They need to be in that room, their voices heard. These are the barriers we are in the process, those who wish to see better times, of dismantling.

Celeste Headlee: So I was in the audience for your TED Talk at TEDWomen, and I kept wondering, “I wonder what this is like for her.” For so long you have been identifying speakers and amplifying those voices through TED Talks, and then you came out and did a TED Talk of your own. What was that like?

Pat Mitchell: Terrifying. Truly, I think I probably had more fear, because I really know the reality of how hard it is to do. And I have loved preparing other speakers for that moment, but until I stood there myself, I don’t think I really realized the level of fear that you can feel about it. And because I had so many other duties going on during TEDWomen, I didn’t actually come to terms with that fear until right before.

Celeste Headlee: Do you think that was a benefit or …

Pat Mitchell: Well, no, I’m not sure. I’m not sure if it were a benefit. No, I think it probably wasn’t a benefit, because I think I probably know too much. I’ve seen the process.

Pat Mitchell: But what I have loved about being able to do TEDWomen and engage at, offer that platform, is, truly, seeing now that 500 talks are on that maybe wouldn’t have been there because it created another opportunity. It added 500 more speakers. And the fact that most of them are women, not all but most, who have spoken TEDWomen, and most of them are people who weren’t in the base of recommended speakers. So, we’ve enlarged the circle. We’ve made TED more inclusive, not just at TEDWomen but throughout the TED community. So I’m really, really proud of that.

Pat Mitchell: I was very hesitant about speaking myself, and had a lot of second thoughts about, “Should I do it at TED and not TEDWomen, because that one is so associated with me?” But on the other hand, the TEDWomen community is really my community that I care deeply about and wanted to speak to. So, at the end, after it was over and I breathed a sigh of relief, I felt an enormous gratitude for having that opportunity. And that’s what I hear back from the speakers who speak at TEDWomen every year. It’s gratitude.

Celeste Headlee: What is the hardest part of the process of preparing for that TED Talk?

Pat Mitchell: You know, I think that differs with, that differs for each speaker. For some, it’s the memorization. And if you’re asking me personally, the hardest part I would say for me that was, because, frankly, it’s one of the parts of aging that isn’t so great. I can’t memorize the way I used to. I had almost a photographic memory, and that’s how I passed math is I never understood it, I just memorized it. But clearly, the older you get, the less ability I have to do that. So, the memorization for me was a real challenge.

Pat Mitchell: Timing is probably, I think speakers always say that having to do something in that short a time … And now the time is 10 to 14 minutes, it’s not 18, as it was in the beginning. So getting an idea across and still finding ways to make it personal and engaging, and for a speaker to show why they are the ones sharing that idea, that’s a hard thing to get organized into a 10 to 14 minute talk. So, I would say probably most speakers say the hardest part is that. For me that was a challenge, but I knew I had to do that.

Pat Mitchell: But the memorization … And then there is just knowing that … This is the other thing you hear from everyone, is knowing that whatever you say in that few minutes is going to be there forever. And that can be a very overwhelming sense of legacy. So, that’s another part of it is knowing that will put the speech into the world with 150, 300 million potential views and translate it. I mean, it’s there forever. And I’ve actually had people turn down the opportunity to do TED Talks for that reason. And it’s particularly true of women who are at a place in their lives where they think a lot of things may change for them. They may go on to a different kind of work, a career, a place, and they’re hesitant to get that kind of solidified thing of, “This is me and my idea.” So it is, that legacy part can be intimidating.

Celeste Headlee: So, it’s possible that we have people listening right now who are thinking, “Hey, maybe I’ll do a TEDx event, or maybe I might …” What would you say to somebody who was considering it and maybe just a little too afraid?

Pat Mitchell: I do recommend doing TEDxes. Sometimes TEDx, in fact many times, speakers from TEDx organized convenings do end up going on So, it can be a direct way to get on the platform-

Celeste Headlee: That was my story.

Pat Mitchell: Was it really?

Celeste Headlee: Yep.

Pat Mitchell: Oh, fantastic. But even if that hadn’t happened for you, wouldn’t it have been great for you to have had the experience of doing it?

Celeste Headlee: Absolutely.

Pat Mitchell: Yeah. So I always recommend it. I think having a TEDx, I wish I had done a TEDx, which I never did, because I just came into it a different way. But I think the TEDx idea is one of the most game changing ideas, I think, to be put forward. I really do. I mean, what other brand has ever done that, taking a global brand and given it away to the world? Essentially, that’s what Chris Anderson did in giving away TEDx saying, “If you want to do one here, take it, go and do it, and just do it within the guidelines of TED.” And expanding the community so enormously. I really am a great admirer of the TEDx community.

Celeste Headlee: So last question for you, and it feeds in to what you were just talking about. I wonder if you could talk to the women who will read your book and hear all those stories, and you tell a lot of stories of different women who are making incredible changes, and think to themselves, “Wow, that’s really inspiring, but I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time. I’m barely making it through my day. I can barely get to the gym.”

Pat Mitchell: By the way, don’t you say that every day too? I mean, I certainly do. I look at my scheduling and go, “When am I going to pick up the cleaning? The little things like that.

Pat Mitchell: Well, it’s so interesting, I had coffee this morning with a young woman … Well, oh, sorry. Not young woman, a woman who worked for me 25 years ago and has had an astonishing career since. And she was saying, “I’ve just finished the book and I’ve decided now I want to do something entirely different with my life.” And she told me what her plan is. And I was just so filled with gratitude that the book had had that effect on her, because I’m now so excited about what she’s going to do. So for me, that has been the best response to the book. It’s when women of all ages come up and say, “Okay, I’m going to go back and I’m going to run for the school board or I’m going to do th-”

Pat Mitchell: Not that everybody’s changing life, jobs, direction, but that it at least says, even at 77, you can still be creating something entirely different in your life if that feels important. And it’s never felt more important for all of us to be engaged. You know that line in the book that just for me describes my life, I mean, “you can’t be dangerous from the sidelines.” And I realized that I wasn’t on the sidelines, but I wanted to be engaged in a different and more direct way.

Pat Mitchell: So that’s what I say to everyone, is we all have a role to play. There is a big, huge need in every community that we, as newly declared dangerous women, can step into those roles, can find time. And as Jane Fonda said recently, actually Saturday on her 82nd birthday, she said that doing what she’s doing now took her despair that she was feeling about the world, and has turned it into the kind of joy she has not felt in a long time, because she is so active and engaged and feels like she is, once again, at the center of doing something that she believes is making difference.

Pat Mitchell: I talked to so many of the women that we were in that holding cell together for a very long time on Friday night, Friday all day. And it was interesting how different and diverse the group was, where they came from. For many, it was the first time they’d ever done a civil disobedience-

Celeste Headlee: Or been arrested.

Pat Mitchell: … and yet they were in their 50s or 60s. Yeah, and getting arrested. But everybody was there for a slightly different motivation. But yet the big motivation was to have their voices heard. And everyone talking about how good it felt, along with complaining about the fact we didn’t have time to be 10 hours in a holding cell, like all the things we needed to be doing. So, I just found that a kind of affirmation again of what is not only necessary, in my opinion, now for all of us to step it up, to show up in different ways. But I also think it’s a source of personal affirmation, of feeling you are doing something that is making a difference in the world. And that, for me, if that meant stepping it up to the level of declaring myself to be dangerous, okay. I’m doing that as a response to these times. And I hope other women and men will do the same.

Celeste Headlee: Pat Mitchell, thank you so very much for your time.

Pat Mitchell: Thank you. Very much enjoyed the conversation.

Celeste Headlee: That’s Pat Mitchell. She’s been a lifelong advocate for women and girls. Her book is called Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to change the World. Thanks for joining us for this conversation. If you enjoyed it, maybe you’ll subscribe. That helps other people find us. Also, check out the offerings from one of the Conferences for Women near you. Those conferences draw more than 45,000 people to annual events in Boston, Philadelphia, Austin, and Silicon Valley. I’m Celeste Headlee. This is Women Amplified from the Conferences for Women. Be kind and be well.