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June 27, 2012

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

By 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.

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