What do resilience, respect and alligator hide have in common? They’re three invaluable traits women must have in order to continue to break through glass ceilings they encounter in life and protect women’s rights.
On Aug. 26, in celebration of Women’s Equality Day, we were honored to hear from three of New Jersey’s most distinguished women in politics – Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver (Note: Oliver was serving as acting governor at the time the Women’s Equality Day event was held.) former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg – about how they have triumphed and continue to do the work of advancing equity for women each day.
As Oliver summed up in her opening remarks, there was one mentor in particular who gave her advice she’ll never forget – “My dear, if you are going to commit to a career in public life, you must develop an alligator hide.”
“I’ll never forget those words,” Oliver said. “You can’t allow your feelings to get hurt. You can’t decide you got defeated on one issue or one position so you’re going to pack up your marbles and go away. You have to be resilient and you must demand respect.”
Weinberg agreed, adding that it was support and other women in politics that also played a critical role in her development as a leader.
“Women helping women and supporting women is important,” Weinberg said.
Here is a sampling of the questions asked during a panel discussion with Whitman and Oliver and their empowering advice for women today.
Q. You’re both very accomplished women. How did you fight the inequities you found in politics and government to achieve what you have?
Oliver: The support that I received from other women. When I first got elected to the legislature, one of my friends gave me a book, “In the Company of My Sisters,” by Dr. Julia Boyd. We often overlook or take for granted that women and the support of women at your “kitchen cabinet level” can do a lot to help support you in the work you have to perform. Women supporting me, encouraging me, serving as a sounding board, really helped me do a better job in whatever job I had to do. The mentorship of women whose shoulders I stand on, and even women who were my peers, that really provided the fuel for me to keep pressing on.
Whitman: You can’t let it bother you that much. It’s somebody else’s problem if they try to cast aspersions on your ability to do anything because you’re a female – that is their problem, not yours. One of the best ways to combat that in any new job is to find the people who have been working at a particular job forever and learn from them. Show them that you’re willing to learn. Don’t try to pretend that you know everything, but let them know you know enough.
Q. What career advice would you give to everyone – women and men – listening to you right now?
Oliver: I would encourage everyone to be present, be visible and to be civically engaged. In addition, it’s not just about paying your dues in whatever occupation or profession you’re in or the company you work for, it’s very important to develop an external portfolio, as well.
Whitman: Do the job that you’ve got. Every job is important. If you look at one job as just a stepping stone to the next, then you forget to do what you’re meant to be doing. Be in that job. If you keep looking at the next step, you’ll miss it because you won’t be doing a good job where you are. I would also say, we all have a responsibility to be involved in our community. Civics is important, we have responsibly to be engaged, informed and vote in elections.
Q. What brings you hope as we continue on the journey toward women’s equality.
Oliver: Young people give me hope. We have so many phenomenal young people in New Jersey, highly educated, knowledgeable. Technology has enabled them to understand the depth of a lot of public policy issues. I know that our state is in good hands if we can encourage our young people to stay in New Jersey. That’s something we have to dedicate ourselves to in government – making communities across New Jersey welcoming so that young people want to commit to staying in our state.
Whitman: Young people. The younger generation is very in tune with this. They don’t have the biases that many of my generation do. Starting with millennials, they’re much more comfortable with equality, they’re much more comfortable mingling both race and sex in a positive way; they don’t have those same kind of biases. It’s the young people that bring me hope.
Q. Please share something that you feel we have to know as we celebrate Women’s Equality Day.
Oliver: We cannot rest on the laurels of the strides that women have made. Women have to stand in solidarity. We must continue to protect our rights. We must continue to make certain the progress we’ve made is protected.
Whitman: Women need to believe in themselves. Understand that you can do any job, you just may have to work at it, but you can do it. We have to start having more confidence in ourselves. Believe in yourself, be willing to step out of your comfort zone – don’t be scared of it, but take it on.
Weinberg was the keynote speaker and also asked what brings her hope as we continue on the journey toward women’s equality.
Weinberg: “To see younger women who are working in a corporate environment that is supportive of them and of their issues gives me hope. The younger generation does give us hope. They are that much more at ease with diversity. But, seeing corporations such as PSEG and the value they put on their women employees also gives me hope for the future.”
Weinberg closed the event with these words: “When the door opens a crack, even if you’re fearful, even if it means starting out at the bottom, when the door opens a crack, put your foot through and push it the rest of the way open.”