Pat Mitchell: How To Wield Power through Women’s Media

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Pat Mitchell, trailblazing media executive, Emmy award-winning and Oscar-nominated producer, Board Chair of Women’s Media Center and Sundance Institute, and Editorial Director of TEDWomen.

1. Your new book Becoming A Dangerous Woman chronicles your personal journey to becoming a media trailblazer. What was it like to go back and look at your life through the lens of your multifaceted role in advocating for women?

In this edition of our Feminist Giving IRL series, Pat Mitchell discusses overcoming imposter syndrome and becoming more engaged in fostering women’s media. (Photo Credit: Lynn Savarese)

I began the book four years ago when the Rockefeller Foundation president offered me a writing residency at Bellagio, encouraging me to extend my global mentoring and women’s leadership work by sharing my own stories from life and work. That residency was a great head start, but when I returned home, I found it hard to put aside the highly engaged ‘life’ I was committed to (and enjoying!) to write about my life, especially to look reflectively backward, as I’ve always been someone determined to keep moving forward.

Another challenge I faced was that writing a memoir felt too much like bragging to me. During a writing hiatus, I confessed it to a friend and she said, “It isn’t bragging if you did it.” That unlocked something and made me face my own “imposter syndrome”—something that I’ve heard from many successful women. I got past that one and now I’m working on accepting praise with total gratitude. I also realized that, at this time in my life, re-wired and not retired, I felt more committed, more passionately engaged, more purposeful about doing my part to create a just and equitable world.

When I returned to writing two years after Bellagio, I found that the challenges and concerns that were a part of my story were still barriers to that world, and in recalling the stories from my work as a journalist, an executive and as an activist/advocate for women, there were resonances with what other women, of different ages and at different places in their lives and work, were experiencing. Sharing my lessons learned from failures as well as successes, as a mentor and as a mentee, became a way to offer guidance for readers of all ages, and to make the case that becoming dangerous–all women and the men and allies who stand with us–is necessary to meet the challenges of dangerous times. 

I have become dangerous to do my part and I wrote the book to inspire others to do the same. As I say in the final chapter, I am not passing my torch because I’m still totally engaged in the work to create a more just and equitable world, but in sharing my stories, speaking my truth, connecting the realities of remaining barriers to full equality, I hope my ‘torch’ lights the way forward for others. 

2. Tell us about your work as Board Chair of the Women’s Media Center and how the WMC helps women in media?

The Women’s Media Center was founded nearly 15 years ago by writers and activists Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and Gloria Steinem. The mission of WMC is to work to ensure women are powerfully and visibly represented in the media and to diversify the media in its content and sources, so that the stories and perspectives of women and girls are more accurately portrayed and women’s full lives and accomplishments represented.

WMC helps prepare women to optimize the power of media by training progressive women from many different sectors to be media-ready. We manage a database of thousands of qualified women from every field (She Source) that has become a valued resource for all media companies, further diversifying the women’s voices heard on all subjects as well as increasing the numbers of women represented in front of and behind the camera, on the front page or homepage of newspapers and in the op-ed sections. We also release annual reports on the Status of Women in Media and it’s clear that while there has been progress, we still have a lot of work to do. We recognize and honor outstanding women in media every year at our award dinner, including the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award which i get to give to a woman who has used her media career to advance other women and elevate women’s stories, challenges and accomplishments. 

3.  What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I wish I had trusted myself more to know what was right for me–rather than listening to the often conflicting advice. More than anything, I wish the few of us who were the pioneers, proving that women could add value as reporters, news anchors, program producers, and executives, had broken through the “Protect your Turf” advice that encouraged us to see each other as competitors rather than allies. Had we broken through this construct earlier, formed alliances, friendships, worked together, we would have made much more progress much earlier and we would have dismantled more barriers for those who followed us–including going public about sexual harassment, about unequal pay for equal work. 

What was defining for me is that I saw the opportunity to use the power of television for women—not just those of us fortunate enough to be ‘inside’ the business but also to use our power to elevate more women, to tell women’s stories, to produce programs about women, and I made that the focus of my media work. I was advised against such a focus as it would limit my career opportunities, but in fact, I got to produce and host breakthrough programming for women–and the only regret is that we weren’t able to move forward with an idea to launch a global women’s information network which Ted Turner and I proposed in the late 90’s. Knowing what a different it would make now, I regret that we didn’t fight harder to get that idea funded!

One thing I have fully embraced in my “rewired,” not “retired” stage of my life is the belief that women can change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women–an idea first proposed by Congresswoman Bella Abzug.  I believe this is the game changer that shifts the power paradigm that got us into these dangerous times and transforms power by the way we, as women, use it to form alliances, to unite around common cause, and to support each other.. 

In partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, and with my partner, Ronda Carnegie, I’m leading a Connected Women Leaders Initiative that convenes women leaders from government, business and civil society to work together on shaping new solutions to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I am witnessing women changing the nature of power in these forums by their approach to problem solving and leveraging connected and collective power.

4. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

My purpose is to leverage all that I know and have done–and that’s a lot–to optimize every platform, connection, opportunity to advocate for a more just and equitable world. I’m impatient for equality which is essential if we are to have such a world, and because I believe women bring a different and much needed perspective to this work, I’m focusing my advocacy, activism, and all my resources on activating a global women’s community to respond by becoming more engaged, more involved, more committed to the work that is necessary to move this forward. I also see this as an opportunity to get more women into political leadership, more women fully employed, with access to capital, more philanthropic dollars for women led social enterprises, and more fair and equal representation everywhere. I am also committed to continue the work to end violence against women and girls everywhere.

5. What inspires you most about your work?

The fact that I believe we can do it. Despite the rollbacks and the challenges we’re facing, we’re more connected, we’re better resourced, we’re ready for this. At both ends of the age spectrum, women and girls are taking big risks, stepping up to lead. Women over 65 are living longer and are more active and redefining what age looks like and can accomplish. And then we’ve got teenagers taking to the streets demanding action. This inspires me every day. 

I interviewed 15 other “dangerous” women in the book, all ages, backgrounds, places of origin– women like Ai Jen Poo, Stacey Abrams, Abby Disney, Christine Schuler-Descryver, Ava DuVernay, Christiane Amanpour, Jacqueline Novogratz, Jane Fonda and others about what makes them dangerous. Talking to all these brave, risk-taking, committed women and watching other women, like Greta Thunberg and Fiona Hill and Sanna Marin, to name just a few, be absolutely fearless and speak their truth is all the inspiration I need to keep moving forward in this work.  

6. How does your gender identity inform your work?

I mentioned before a quote from Bella Abzug. She said, “In the 21st century, women will change the nature of power rather than power changing the nature of women.” Women do indeed do power differently. I’ve seen it in my work as a journalist observing other women and in my activism being in the rooms where women come together, share learning and stories, connect personally and professionally, exchange ideas and collectively problem solve. When women come together, we are more ready to collaborate, to actively listen, to form alliances, and to bridge differences in order to get to a solution.

7. Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?

Of course it has! 

8. How can philanthropy support gender equality?

To quote my friend Ruth Ann Harnisch, “Finance is the final frontier of feminism.” When women choose to support women- and minority-led businesses, creative projects, nonprofits and political campaigns with their pocketbooks, it is no small thing. Too small a percentage of all philanthropic dollars go to social enterprises and non-profits focused on women, and too little financial capital goes to support women led start-ups and social enterprises. We have more wealth than ever; we need to use it to push equality forward.

9. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?

I’m hoping that we’ll see more big bets on women, as Melinda Gates did earlier this year when she announced that she was donating $1 billion dollars to promote gender equality. These are game-changing moves in terms of philanthropy and I believe that they will accelerate exponentially the changes we want to see. 

Equality can’t wait and we can’t do our part from the sidelines. In every area of our society — in business, media, politics, world affairs — we will see more women at the table representing themselves and the voices of women, minorities and others who are not at the table. And with that inclusion, we will see, as we have already seen in study after study that when women lead, organizations are more collaborative and sustainable; businesses do better from every measurement, and governments and communities tend to be more caring, compassionate and just

Kiersten Marek

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work in Cranston, Rhode Island, and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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