Janet Napolitano has reservations about describing women as “bossy.” But there is no doubt that the former Secretary of Homeland Security is a boss.
Napolitano received the Beacon Award from the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women — an international network of Penn alumnae — in recognition of her commitment to the advancement of women and gender equality .
Napolitano is the 13th recipient of the award, joining the ranks of past winners including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sandra Day O’Connor and Toni Morrison.
Provost Vincent Price , who presented the honor, remarked that Napolitano “absolutely embodies” the spirit of the Beacon Award, as she has repeatedly broken down gender barriers throughout her career in both the public and private sectors.
Perhaps best known for her time as the third U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security — the first and only woman to hold the position to date — Napolitano previously served as both the governor of Arizona and the first female attorney general of the state. Napolitano resigned from the Cabinet in August 2013 to assume her current role as president of the University of California system, becoming the first woman to take the helm of the world’s largest university system.
Recalling some of the award winner’s accomplishments as governor, Price — who has known Napolitano since their days together as undergraduates at Santa Clara University — noted that Napolitano was instrumental in implementing full-day kindergarten in Arizona, a major benefit for working mothers across the state.
Following Price’s introduction, Napolitano took the podium to deliver an emphatic speech that tackled the issues surrounding women and their involvement as leaders today.
Napolitano began by commenting on the gaps that exist between society’s views of female leaders and male leaders. For instance, she noted that words like “bossy” that refer to an assertive person are generally “used as a pejorative” for girls, but have a more positive connotation for boys.
“Do we subtly send messages to girls that they should not be leaders?” Napolitano asked. “Words like ‘bossy’ are one example of how we steer women away from leadership.”
Napolitano also stressed the importance of teaching girls and young women “not to self-select out” of leadership opportunities.
“You can’t win the prize if you don’t enter the contest, and you need good teachers to show you the way,” Napolitano said.
Reflecting on her first years as an attorney in private practice, Napolitano cited the guidance of a few mentors at her law firm as a vital asset to her growth in the legal field.
Encouraging women to take risks was another one of Napolitano’s key points. To illustrate her message, Napolitano drew on memories of her transition into public service, recalling that when President Bill Clinton opened a search for a new U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona in the early 1990s, she took a risk and “raised [her] hand.”
“Sometimes it’s not about shattering the glass ceiling. It’s about being in the right place at the right time and being ready to go,” Napolitano added.
She closed with some words of wisdom gleaned from her experiences dealing with challenges over the years, such as a problem with the effectiveness of Arizona’s Child Protective Services that she faced as a new governor. Napolitano remembered that there was a backlog of 6,000 cases at CPS when she first arrived at the post in 2003. By the time she left for the White House, this backlog had been eliminated.
“The landscape a leader inherits is never perfect,” she said. “We operate in the real world and not in an ideology ... sometimes you have to take a punch and move forward — that is what makes a leader.”