By Greg Varner
Three distinguished GW alumnae returned to campus Thursday for a discussion of the future of women’s leadership hosted by the International Women of Elliott (I/WE) at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs. The trio of panelists emphasized the importance of serving as allies for other women.
The accomplished guests were Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, B.A. ’80, a 30-year diplomat who became the U.S. State Department’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer in April 2021; Dana Bash, B.A. ’93, CNN’s chief political correspondent; and Jenna Segal, B.A. ’98, a Tony award-winning producer of theater, film, and television and founder of Segal NYC, an investment and development company focused on female audiences.
Alyssa Ayres, dean of the Elliott School, served as moderator. Welcoming the panelists back to campus, Ayres asked them to comment on the legacy of Madeleine Albright, the recently deceased former Secretary of State.
Bash, who interviewed her a year ago, remembered Albright saying, “To be heard in a room full of men, you have to interrupt.” Abercrombie-Winstanley, the longest-serving U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Malta, praised Albright as a “trailblazer” who taught women “the importance of pulling as you climb,” or serving as allies with other women.
The next round of questions invited each guest to comment on the future for women in her field.
Five years from now, Abercrombie-Winstanley predicted, the Department of State will look very different thanks to “a real commitment” to making the diplomatic corps more inclusive and representative of American society.
The news media, particularly when it comes to coverage of national security and foreign policy issues, is also changing, Bash said, with increasing numbers of mothers of young children playing key roles. She has been particularly impressed when interviewing women in the diplomatic corps, including Albright.
“They are able to answer questions in a very clear and direct way and not make a mistake,” Bash said. “They can respond in a way that doesn’t sound like they’re giving State Department talking points.”
When it comes to women’s leadership in the performing arts, on both the creative and business sides, Segal said, things are also shifting.
“It boils down to economics,” Segal said. “Women will take jobs that men won’t take. They’ll take jobs for lower pay. You’re finding women with tremendous amounts of experience rising up, but maybe not getting jobs on the main stage.”
She pointed to the ballet world, in which male choreographers outnumber women despite the great numbers of women in the field. “We’ve got to change this,” she added.
In arts organizations, Segal said, more women are involved philanthropically on boards, and that will positively influence hiring decisions for leadership positions.
Asked what advice they would offer young women, the panelists agreed on the critical importance of speaking up.
“It is important to inhabit the space you are given,” said Abercrombie-Winstanley. “If you’re in the room, open your mouth and speak. My only regret is that in my youth I sat quietly in more rooms than I should have.”
During a brief question-and-answer session, the panelists were asked to discuss their important role models. All praised their parents for their encouragement and support.
Another questioner wondered how the panelists deal with stress. Their answers emphasized the importance of taking time to recharge. Chocolate, cat videos and the occasional glass of wine were cited as helpful tools.
After the panel discussion, Ayres bestowed honorary lifetime membership in the I/WE Executive Circle on Joetta Miller, M.A. ’71, a longstanding member of the Elliott School dean’s advisory board. Ayres then announced that Miller has committed to significantly expand the Joetta Miller Graduate Fellowship Fund through a planned gift. The fund provides tuition support for outstanding graduate students dedicated to the advancement of women in international affairs.
“Thank you, Joetta, for your exceptional investment,” Ayres said. “Your tremendous generosity will make a significant difference in the lives of generations of Elliott School students who share your deep interest in expanding the role of women on the world stage.”
Brief closing remarks were offered by Susan Stautberg, M.A. ’70, co-chair of I/WE. Women involved in the Elliot School have raised more than $200,000 to increase scholarships for women at graduate and undergraduate levels, Stautberg said, before inviting all present to join her at a reception.
The event was cosponsored by the Gender Equality Initiative in International Affairs; the Leadership, Ethics and Practice (LEAP) Initiative; and Young Black Professionals in International Affairs; and the Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Sorority.