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‘A Woman in the Boardroom’: A 1978 Interview with Joan Ganz Cooney


Ed. Note: This interview with Sesame Workshop co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney originally appeared in the 1978 January-February edition of the Harvard Business Review. It has been re-published with the permission of the Harvard Business Review and edited for length. Special thanks goes to Ms. Cooney for taking the time to reflect upon her interview and write an updated introduction, which you can find below.

I find it hard to believe, upon re-reading this interview from Harvard Business Review, that it was published only 34 years ago… As the kids would say, “It’s so last century!” I was among the first women to be asked to join a Fortune 300 corporate board. Today, it is not unusual for major corporations to have two or three women as board members. I was embarrassed to read how afraid I was to offend the sensibilities of the businessmen of that era. I’m happy to say that today men and women interact as equals; Women CEO’s, while still rare in the Fortune 500, exist in much greater numbers than they did in the 70′s and women are almost always in high executive positions. Xerox’s two most recent CEO’s have been women; the current one is African American. So yes, things have changed for the better. We still have a long way to go but there is no question that astonishing progress has been made by women in business.

Harvard Business Review: We’d like to look at several conventional views concerning the question of women at top management and board levels.  The first concerns qualifications. Many people believe that women can’t make the same tough decisions that men can, that they aren’t qualified in the same way that men are. What is your response to that view?

Cooney: Well, I don’t think there’s anything to it in one way, but in other ways there’s a great deal to it. Little girls and young women are trained on both conscious and unconscious bases, by the family and by society, to “get along”—to be diligent and dutiful, to take instructions from older people, first from their parents and then from men. Some men are comfortable in that role, merely following instructions, but virtually all women are comfortable in it.

To make decisions women have to debrief themselves, which causes an enormous amount of anxiety and stress, to understand that they can take action—can, for instance, perform the necessary surgery if it must be performed. Such surgery includes eliminating a department, eliminating, here at Children’s Television Workshop, a show, eliminating personnel; sometimes for budgetary reasons, sometimes for competency reasons.

Does surgery occur at the board level so much that it would affect a woman’s qualifications?

No, the surgery issue should never come up at all. It has absolutely nothing in the world to do with being a good board member, because even at the point at which the board’s decision is that the chairman must go it’s a group decision. One person doesn’t have to perform that surgery. You may be part of a faction, but still you have great support—and that’s a very compatible role for anyone, though especially for a woman. That’s the other side of the qualifications issue.  We’re very willing to “go along.”

When you joined your first board, did you question your own qualifications?

Not really. But the problem, I think, for women, to keep using the plural, is that very few women in this country are chief executive officers, and most outside directors are; that’s the pool they’re drawn from. Because the women on boards are usually something less than CEO in their companies, they may be at a slight disadvantage. But even if they aren’t qualified in the same way as men, that’s not an excuse to not have one or two women on a board.

That leads us right into the second common belief, namely, that women on boards are merely tokens and not equal members.

Oh, they’re equal—they are so equal under the law that there is no way in the world of their not being equal.

But because they may not be chief executive officers, like most of the other outside members of the board, might women feel that they are not equal?

They might feel it. My being the only woman on the boards I sit on—and the fact that I had come from a nonprofit organization—was difficult at first. I didn’t feel secure. After all, my experience with profit corporations was zilch, and so for a long time I felt at quite a disadvantage. I certainly wasn’t traumatized by reading budgets, however; I’d grown up with budgets—first as a producer and then in this job where I deal with multimillion dollar budgets. I remember Peter McColough, chief executive officer at Xerox, said, “It’s the same thing, Joan; the problems are the same; just add zeros to it.” But I feel equal now.

Did anything specific help you feel equal?

Time on the board is the main factor, but there are others. Xerox, for instance, treats its board members as members of the Xerox family, and you could be any color, any sex, any religion, but once you’re on that board, you are then a member of the Xerox family. So I don’t feel “almost” equal there. And once you’re on any board, you’ve got to become a good, equal director. Legally you get no breaks. The judges aren’t going to say, “Well, let’s put the little lady aside in the suit.”

A 1977 survey by Heidrick and Struggles, Inc. found that may of the women recently appointed to boards have nontraditional backgrounds and that that in part accounts for their selections. You certainly have a nontraditional background. Has it helped you get on the boards you sit on?

Where else are boards going to get women from? Also, corporations are trying to get a “twofer,” even better a “threefer.” Because smaller boards are symbolic and tokenistic to some degree, they have their professor, they have one or two businessmen, and they have a college president. Xerox, for example, has a college president and two or three businessmen. Then it has Vernon Jordan, the head of the Urban League, and Joan Cooney, also from a nonprofit group, which hits more constituencies than just adding a black businessman and a businesswoman. With me, they get media, education, and kids. With Vernon, they get a prominent civil rights leader.

Would the head of CTW have been invited to be on the board of directors of Xerox if the head had been a man?

I would doubt it, though I don’t rule it out as a possibility. Certainly John Bunting, chief executive officer at First Pennsylvania Bank, wanted a woman, Peter McColough wanted a woman, Dave Babcock, chief executive officer of May, the same. But some board members somewhere might have said that “he” represents education, children, and the media, and therefore is considered a “good guy” for the consumer.

Does recognizing that had you been a man you might not have been selected bother you? Do you have any sense that half of you is getting in there for, maybe, the wrong reasons?

Well, I don’t consider it the wrong reasons, any more than a black would. I consider myself part of a civil rights movement, though perhaps not in exactly the same way as a black might. I felt that I should join these boards for the same reason I do pro bono things. There are only X number of women available, at this point, and so I do feel that I’m an integrator.

And so that is one of your motivations?

One of my motivations is to show, to demonstrate, that women can, in the traditional sense, be just as good directors as men, that the roof does not cave in, and that a woman with responsibility thinks, if you will, just like a man. That is what the bottom line is. If a woman becomes a chief executive officer, or head of a division of a company, or whatever, she will have no problems making decisions. She must make decisions. Responsibility has no gender; it makes us all rather sexless. An employee of mine here, a producer, once said to me, “I don’t think of you as a man or a woman; I think of you as a good or bad executive.”

That’s another one of the common notions, that at top levels of management, which would include boards, a woman has to be unfeminine to survive.

If “feminine” means being cute and flirty and asking the great big man for what li’l ole me can’t quite get, it has no place in the boardroom. But if feminine means liking to wear fashionable clothes, wearing long dresses to dinner parties, and trying to look attractive, as a woman, or if it means not for a minute shying away from having the door opened for me, the chair pulled out, men standing up for me—we kiss in boardrooms now—I’d never give that up; I couldn’t.

So you don’t have to forsake what you think of as being feminine?

No, it’s what others think of as feminine that’s the problem. When I am asked my opinion of some product, more in retailing probably than elsewhere, about what a woman thinks of it, the person really means what would a “housewife” think, and I always find that hilarious. It’s in things like that that I find men a little bit sexist. At times I have said, “You know, I do as much cooking as you do. I don’t have a house, and I’m not even a wife at the moment.” The point is I never was a “housewife.”

Do you run into other stereotypes as well?

The other day a man, not a CEO but an executive in a corporation, said the most amazing thing to me. Although he has never worked with women as equals, he said that one of the differences between men and women is that at least men always bury the hatchet after their fights. I hit the arm of the chair and said, “Not being able to stop fighting is a personality trait.” Then I said, “I am in a fight a day with outsiders and insiders, and it’s all over—once I win it.” That was an attempt to be funny, but for me it’s all over when it’s resolved.

So the common view about women, that they’re not able to get along, is a myth?

Absolutely, whereas I’ve seen men drag enterprises down because of their fighting. Men with their horns out will butt each other to the death if you don’t get in there and break it up. I’ve had to jerry-build at times because two men absolutely could not work together and both had some value. Our women here at CTW tend to be better corporate animals than the men because of their training. So the common view is quite opposite from the fact. The males are the ones who fight to the death; you see that in the forest as well.

Isn’t that merely a common belief about men?

Well, yes. I think my original statement is more correct. Remaining hostile after a disagreement is a personality trait, and you either have it or you don’t. If you have a gift for making enemies, you cannot last in corporate America. There may be people you don’t get alone with occasionally, but you’d better not get too many of those on your record. That really ruins careers, whether male or female.

The last conventional view is about reticence and passivity—that women just don’t speak up.

Correct, that is not a myth. In the boardroom I’m quite shy about speaking up and appearing stupid. I often think that everybody else knows the answer to a question I ask. Occasionally though I get the nerve to ask the meaning of a technical term that is being used and find other directors don’t know the answer either.

Where do you get the nerve, if you’re so passive and reticent?

Well, because of the responsibility. A director must always ask himself or herself, “Am I being duly diligent?” And so at times you really have to swallow your shyness. You can ask questions privately, and I do quite a lot of that. Want to know the truth? I whisper at board meetings.

You do a lot of whispering?

Not a lot, because I don’t want to be disruptive, but I will if a subject is being discussed and I really don’t get it. Sometimes whoever I ask will say, “I’ll tell you later, I’ll send you a booklet on it.” Or unless it’s a quick answer, he’ll write me a note in the course of the meeting.

Are you out of this sense of diligence and duty—which could be considered a female trait—in fact doing your job more responsibly than some of the men who don’t know and don’t ask?

I probably take my responsibilities more seriously than some men do who are used to the more honorific nature of boards. You see it also in the younger men who are coming on boards. They take it very seriously.

But the best male directors aren’t afraid of being a little bit contentious, whereas I have bent over backward to do nothing that could be called a female trait. I may be supersensitive on this point, this may not be female, it just may be me, but, for instance, I never arrive late because I don’t want anyone thinking, “Oh, isn’t that just like a woman.” Every now and then I’ll change my mind, and someone will say, “That’s a woman’s privilege,” but I don’t turn around and say what I feel like saying. It’s fine. I am a woman. I am not embarrassed about that fact.

What about showing emotion?

There’s little opportunity in the boardroom to react with anger or compassion, the heart-breaking personnel problems are not being brought to you. I’ve had to fight tears once in awhile, here at CTW, but I can’t imagine that happening in the boardroom. Unless, of course, I heard a lawsuit was being instituted by a stockholder.

Getting on to your experience in the boardroom, in their book [Managerial Women, Anchor Press/ Doubleday], Margaret Hennig and Anne Jardim assert that men are traditionally team players—they grow up playing football, learning the value of winning as a team—whereas women don’t have that, tending to look at things from an individual point of view.  Do you find you’ve had to approach issues differently, being a member of a team?

I totally disagree with that. What’s being observed by researchers is the process, not the outcome. A woman who is moving ahead in a company appears a “chosen” one and really stands out as an individual. This applies to blacks as well as women. People cut out from the herd tend to look like nonteam people, but believe me, the woman or black who’s chipped off has to get along with the team she or he then becomes part of, or she or he won’t be chosen—it’s that simple. But then I grew up playing team sports so maybe that slants my point of view. Come to think of it, I don’t know many men who have played a lot of team sports.

What about interpersonal skills?

They would head the list of accomplishments necessary for women to succeed. Most women who are in business probably have more finely honed interpersonal skills than do most of their male peers. They can’t get there without superb ones because men are going to have to feel they can get along with them. Women are not just in competition; they have to be a little bit better at everything if they want to move up.

Was there any particular kind of support that you required from your peers on boards when you first joined?

Well, I didn’t get any, but I don’t think it was because I was a woman. It was more that I was an inexperienced outside director and did not know what to ask for. Now I would know how to do it. I would meet with the secretary of the corporation on the agendas. I would meet with the head of the audit committee, because there’s apt to be a spot where some trouble is, if there is any, and find out what the issues are. And after I had met with others, then I would go to the CEO for a talk so that I would come in, if not up to speed, at least able to get going on the board rather than sit silently for several meetings. But that’s a question of experience.

Is there any distinction between how you’re treated as the head of your own organization and on boards?  Do you go from one to the other saying, “Well, now I have to switch roles”?

No. No. No. I go as the CEO from Children’s Television Workshop, and I don’t feel threatened or threatening. However, part of the reason that I may be nonthreatening to the men on those boards is that I don’t think they see me as being terribly powerful, compared with them. It’s sort of an acceptable thing for a woman to be in the nonprofit world with children. And I was the little lady who integrated the board. And that’s acceptable because I behaved myself. I’m not treated differently, but I probably act differently, as I’ve said.

If you were the CEO of a large manufacturing industry, would they treat you any differently?

They might. Actually, in the world that I live in, men think I’m very threatening. And men have said that to me. When I was married, whenever I went to a party, a male friend would come up to me and say, “I couldn’t take it, I couldn’t be married to you,” meaning someone more famous than himself, more successful than himself. So those men who understand what it is I do find it very threatening on a personal level. But I honestly don’t believe that on the boards I’m on that I am thought of as anything but a rather conventional, conservative business person from the nonprofit world.

For you, working with men as a lone woman is not new, but for some of the men on boards working with a woman as a peer could be a very new experience.  Does that situation affect your relationship on boards?

First, the Scarlett O’Hara syndrome doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t like being the lone woman; I like having other women around. Second, I think men on boards easily get over the newness of working with a woman. What a man can’t imagine is working for a woman. That’s what wont yield in American business, and I’ve been told that men, good men, have threatened to quit if a woman were appointed over them. I have always said, “You’ll have to bite that bullet sooner or later.” But they won’t, not yet, anyway. There’s less prejudice at CTW than in most businesses. And that’s for the very obvious reason that I’m here. Any man who comes here has less prejudice against women to start with. If he can work for a woman, his ego must be intact, so you’ve got a different kind of man. But in most companies, the prejudice is formidable, absolutely formidable.

How do you deal with the hostility?

With humor, which I have a lot of. Any board member who knows me well knows that. There’s a lot of laughter that attends all this; it’s not deadly serious. The kidding around about the women’s movement is not apt to come up in a formal meeting, but if someone mentions an article about me that he’s read somewhere and I say, “Oh, it was so sexist,” he’ll say, “Oh, yes, it was sexist.” Then I’ll say, “Well, I want to be a total equal and a sex object too,” and that makes him laugh, it makes him comfortable.

Do you have a separate bucketload of stresses that your peers on boards don’t have?

There have to be extra stresses if you are a woman head of a company. You are fighting your training and conditioning all the time, and you certainly have to win that fight to be effective. And no battle’s won forever. So there are days when you fight it again. Then there is the added stress that I have laid on myself, whether right or wrong, to counter whatever I think the female stereotypes are whether it’s in this job, in the outside world, or on boards.

Furthermore, I don’t have a wife attending to the details of my personal life. At the same time I want to show up at the dinner the night before a meeting, where the wives will be wearing long dresses, or at other dinner parties, in nice clothes, with my hair done. The men will be there in business suits, right from work, while I’ll have had to work in Lord & Taylor or Saks Fifth Avenue that day or the day before.

Do you resent your male peers who don’t have that kind of stress?

No. I like being a woman, and, the funny thing is, I like clothes and I suppose there’s some pride in turning up looking pretty good and having them say, “How does she do it?”

But it takes a big toll?

Sure, it’s a killer, but I’m determined to die pretty.

“A Woman in the Boardroom” by Joan Ganz Cooney, Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 1978. Reprinted with permission.  Copyright (c) 1978 by Harvard Business Publishing; all rights reserved. 

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