Janet Napolitano: Risk, Resolve, and Running a Major University System

The former Homeland Security secretary sits down for a Q&A on women and leadership

Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in 2010. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Before she became the first woman to run the University of California system, Janet Napolitano became Santa Clara University’s first female valedictorian. Later, she was the first woman to serve as the attorney general of Arizona and the first woman to run the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama. Napolitano is not unfamiliar with firsts.

But while she was certainly in the minority as a female cabinet member in Washington, she did not expect to remain so in the minority when she assumed the role of university president in 2013. Yet, despite the fact that women now make up more than half of all college students in the United States, just slightly more than a quarter of university presidents are female. And the women who do rise through the ranks to run schools are more likely to lead two-year colleges than they are four-year research universities. They are less likely than men to hold tenured positions and to be able to raise families without jeopardizing careers.

As part of The Atlantic’s series exploring women and leadership, I sat down with Janet Napolitano for a Q&A at her Oakland, California, office about women in academia, leadership more broadly, and her thoughts on why some of the disparities between men and women in leadership roles remain. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Emily DeRuy: You’ve held so many leadership roles—Arizona attorney general, governor, now university president—that are so rarely occupied by women. Why is that? What’s different about Janet Napolitano?

Janet Napolitano: (Long pause) That’s a hard question to answer in that format. I think it’s a couple of things. I’ve had great opportunities. I’ve been willing to take risks. And so I think that’s part of it. And just the willingness to articulate a vision and manage an institution to try to achieve at least parts of that vision.

DeRuy: Many people are familiar with your career trajectory, but was there anything in your childhood—a person or something else in your upbringing—that really influenced where you are now?

Napolitano: My parents were very influential. They were always encouraging. They were not helicopter parents by any stretch. It was, “do what you want to do, but if you’re going to do it, do it. Put some energy into it.” I grew up in New Mexico, in Albuquerque, and was very active in Girl Scouts, and learned a lot of lessons. And, you know, when I was a little kid, I remember raising my hand. I’ll be the patrol leader. I’ll plan the cookout. I’ll do whatever. Those little things that creep over time, you just kind of get used to it. In fact, this coming weekend, I’m going to a camp reunion in New Mexico with a bunch of gals I was in Scouts with in the … geez, I don’t want to say how long ago. Early ‘70s. Long time ago.

DeRuy: As someone who has long worked in male-dominated realms, have there been times where you were treated differently than your peers for being a woman? Had your outfit or the tone of your voice criticized? Been told to smile?

Napolitano: No, I don’t think so. I think, though, when I became the U.S. attorney for Arizona, when I took over the attorney general office, when I took over as the secretary for Homeland Security … you’re in these positions where you’re working with a lot of career people, particularly career law-enforcement people. There’s always that initial “Who is this person and how is she going to help us do our work?” kind of this questioning thing. I’m not sure that that’s different between women and men. I do think it’s very important that as a woman, you establish your credibility and willingness to listen, but also your willingness to make good decisions.

DeRuy: There was also a lawsuit by a man alleging that the Department of Homeland Security discriminated against men. I know your office denied this was the case, but what do you think prompted that suit?

Napolitano: I can’t speak to the particular lawsuit. I can say that if one looked at the leadership profile at DHS, it was overwhelmingly male, so … I’m not sure the lawsuit had much to it other than perhaps a personality conflict.

DeRuy: I don’t get the impression it would've happened if a man was secretary.

Napolitano: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I really can’t say.

DeRuy: We’ve heard so much about likeability or a lack thereof—specifically with Hillary Clinton this election cycle—where that really hasn’t been a factor for male candidates. Not necessarily likeability specifically, but are there things you can’t do that, say, the former University of California president Mark Yudof could do? Or things you feel you have to be careful about?

Napolitano: I think for women in public leadership positions, you want to connect with your audience and you want them to listen to what you have to say, not just look at what you’re wearing or how you cut your hair or any of those kinds of things. And I think the pitch and timbre of your voice makes a difference. I’ve seen many young women who want to go into politics, for example, and they have that very high, kind of, for lack of a better word, kind of a girly voice. But you’re trying to persuade people that you’re not only listening, but that you have the ability to get things done. And so I think women have to pay particular attention to voice.

I remember when I made the transition from wearing dress suits to pant suits, and it really happened when I became Secretary of Homeland Security because I was being carted around in these big, old, black suburbans. So the platform to get in is like a pole vault, and getting in and out of a suburban eight or nine times a day wearing skirt suits with stockings was just not practical. And so I know I have some dress suits, I know I brought them with me from Washington, but I have no idea where they are. Because once you make the transition, you don’t transition back.

DeRuy: Nobody’s looking at what men are wearing.

Napolitano: For men, we always used to laugh and they would laugh, too, that it’s almost like there’s a uniform. You know, in the summer, it’s khaki slacks and a navy blazer and a light blue or white shirt and a tie. And so it’s easy for them to pack and travel. Women, I think, have to have a different kind of wardrobe and enjoy having a different wardrobe. It’s kind of nice having some variety in what you wear. But I think there is a uniform on the male side that you don’t necessarily see on the female side.

DeRuy: Flipping that last question around, any time where being a woman has been an asset? I’ve had older men call me sweetie, for instance, and proceed to give really revealing quotes that they’re then horrified to see in print, I guess because they didn’t see me as a professional while we were speaking.

Napolitano: I don’t know if I’d call it an asset, but one of the things that happens is women who are in similar positions tend to bond with each other and form a group of women—mutual supporters, as it were. So we did that when I was attorney general and the female attorneys general around the country would get together for dinner, certainly when I was governor, the same things. We’d have these big national meetings and so all the governors are there and somehow we would find time to go off and have a meal or a glass of wine or what have you. When I was in the cabinet, the women who were in the cabinet, the senior women in the White House, would get together for dinner every six weeks or so just to talk. And I’m not sure that our male counterparts … I know they didn’t. And it wasn’t like we were trying to be a club; it was more like we enjoyed each other’s company. We were having similar experiences and sometimes we wanted to talk about things that maybe our male counterparts didn’t, and I think females are very good at forming those kinds of friendships and allegiances.

DeRuy: What are some of the things you talked about?

Napolitano: Personal relationships, movies, books, shopping, the press, things like that. It was just a chance to let our hair down, so to speak. I don’t have much hair to let down, but you get the picture.

DeRuy: I get the picture.

DeRuy: One of the criticisms of higher education is that women so often occupy adjunct positions that pay little and don’t lead to tenure and, importantly, aren’t a pipeline to leadership positions like yours at universities. Is that something you’re focused on at all or think needs to change?

Napolitano: I think in higher education today, there’s a growing use of what we would call “non-ladder-rank faculty,” so ladder rank are tenure-track and non-ladder rank are adjuncts, or they come with different labels. All can be very valuable to the student experience. We haven’t focused on that [trend] intensely in that way. What we have focused on is how do we diversify the faculty both with respect to women, particularly in some disciplines, and with respect to underrepresented minorities. And that’s a really tough issue. You look at colleges of engineering and there aren’t a lot of women on faculties. That’s one of the clearer examples. And so how do we make sure, when we’re searching for ladder-rank faculty, that we are being as inclusive as we can and that the search process is not infected with implicit bias and we end up with the most diverse faculty we can.

DeRuy: What are some of the challenges there?

Napolitano: Some is just numbers. There aren’t a huge number of women with Ph.D.s in engineering or some of the [science, technology, engineering, and math] disciplines, and there’s a lot of hiring going on in those areas. So we also have to be encouraging young women to go into those kinds of fields. And more of that will occur over time, but we need to be doing everything we can to push that trajectory along.

DeRuy: I wonder if some of it, too, may be that women are looking at work-life balance and saying, “Maybe I want to get married and have kids,” and they don't necessarily think it’s feasible to do both, and maybe they’ll take the adjunct route.

Napolitano: That could be happening with some. And academia is not unlike other professions where women’s childbearing years are also the same years that, say, if she’s an associate in a law firm, she’d be putting in the time necessary and billing the hours to become a partner. And so we need to be looking at arrangements where there’s a more appropriate way of letting women, or men for that matter, take time to raise their families and then get back on track. How you do that is an evolution that we’re all dealing with because you lose a lot of talent otherwise.

When I went to law school [at the University of Virginia], there was one tenured woman on the entire law-school faculty. And that’s very different now where I went and in most law schools, so it can happen and it doesn’t happen overnight, and I don’t think we can just sit back and say, well, demographics will take charge of that. You’ve got to find ways of eliminating implicit bias and make sure searches are inclusive and reach out to talent around the country to get the best and most diverse faculty you can.

DeRuy: Have those barriers shifted at all over time? We don’t seem to see as much blatant sexism in the workplace, so rooting out some of that subtle sexism or policies that disproportionately disadvantage women is maybe even harder today.

Napolitano: Right—people are better at disguising things. I think the same can be true for racism, as well. That’s hard for me to answer only because I’ve only been in academia three years. I do know it surprised me when I learned I was the first woman to head the University of California. And then when I looked around the country at women who are presidents of major universities, or university systems, there aren’t that many when you actually count it up, and I found that amazing because I would’ve thought, of any sector, this one would’ve had a lot of women at the top.

DeRuy: Having been here awhile now, why do you think there aren’t?

Napolitano: I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for that. Except when a position is held by men for a long time, there’s a paradigm that gets built as to what a university president looks like, so as women move into positions and take them, then you have to change the paradigm.

DeRuy: Obviously, The Atlantic thinks a conversation about women in leadership is worthwhile, but there are some who argue we shouldn’t talk about that and a leader is a leader, regardless.

Napolitano: You know why I think it’s important? First of all, it’s something to explore the reasons for and what can be done about that. But also, and more importantly to me, is hopefully there will be lessons learned and things imparted to the next generation of women … Sometimes I think women are more reticent to take a risk. I saw this particularly in decisions about whether to run for elective office. And they kind of almost, for whatever reason, became the campaign manager or policy head, all very important positions but not the candidate herself. So I think anything we can do to say, “Look these positions are all out there, women have done them, have achieved in them.” I think the more we get those lessons out there, the more we mitigate that kind of thought process.

DeRuy: Were you reluctant?

Napolitano: Oh yeah. Not because … it’s a big jump off a board to actually put your name out there and know that you could lose and have to make cold calls to raise money and do all the thing that go into campaigns, so it’s a huge time commitment. Obviously, I was successful, but I was also prepared on the other hand, if I lose, I lose. But I wanted to at least get in the game.

DeRuy: I wonder why some women, like you, do get in the game, but others who are qualified say no. There’s something that makes some women decide to go for it.

Napolitano: Well, politics is a very … it’s a fight. You’re trying to fight to win people's trust. You're fighting to get yourself in a position where you can make decisions that affect thousands of lives. And it’s zero-sum to the extent that if you win, the other guy loses. So you have that confrontation aspect to it, and women culturally don't see themselves necessarily in that direct kind of confrontational situation and perhaps that goes into the thought process.

DeRuy: When you talk to different generations, you often hear different things from women of different ages about leadership. As someone who spends a lot of time interacting with young people, is there anything that has struck you about young women and their views of leadership?

Napolitano: What I’ve seen this last year amongst students is cynicism about politics and government in general. I think the toxicity of the presidential campaign has contributed to that a lot, and a sense among students of they want to do big important things and they don’t equate that with getting into government or public service or actual electoral politics … I hope it’s something that ameliorates over time because you need good people in these really key jobs in government or university leadership or wherever.

DeRuy: Why is it important to have women in office, or leadership, at all?

Napolitano: Well in part because they’re over half of the population of the U.S. And now we’re stereotyping and that is problematic, but I think many women bring a different consultative leadership style to them, and don’t like some of the just naked partisanship that we’ve seen develop.

DeRuy: There are probably also certain issues they have different perspectives on, too.

Napolitano: No doubt. For example, when I became attorney general of Arizona, there was a huge backlog of cases involving child protective services. I think we had something like 6,000 pending cases, and these are cases where kids have been taken out of a home and they need a new placement to grow up. And the more delay, the more they’re in the system, going from foster home to foster home. Well, for a kid, a six-month delay, that’s half a school year. That’s a lot. So we really took it on ourselves and staffed up to deal with those cases, to deal with the backlog, and then to keep current and have a better process for handling those. I think that’s an area where my priorities setting differed from my predecessors.’ So that priority setting is part of it.

DeRuy: When you were a college student, a law student, there were not as many women going to college or to law school. Now, that’s not true, but we see other people—undocumented students, students of color, for instance—who are in a position where they are the minority in those settings. Did your own experience being something of a minority on campus influence how you interact with students who currently find themselves in some way a minority on campus?

Napolitano: I’m not sure that my experience equates to racial minority. I think there are different issues there. Yeah, it would’ve been nice to have more women on the faculty, and yes, it would’ve been nice to have more women in the student body. I think a particular point was role models, because I think role models are important. That’s another reason you want women in leadership and I’m trying to remember whether I ever had … I think I had one or two seminars with adjunct female instructors at the University of Virginia Law School but none of the big classes … So we didn’t have that kind of role modeling at least in the faculty. At Santa Clara University, Santa Clara had been all male, until about 10 years before I attended, and I think we were about 40 percent female, so the student body had diversified quite a bit, but the faculty was still primarily male. Particularly the priests [laughs]—it was kind of like a job qualification.

DeRuy: In the last several months, with the chancellor of UC Davis, you felt, and many people felt, that some of what she’d done was not appropriate and that stepping down was the correct thing to do, but was the fact that she was one of not many women in that leadership position and…

Napolitano: And an engineer

DeRuy: Yes, and with her gone, there’s one less woman in a leadership role where there weren’t many to begin with. Did that influence your thinking on the issue?

Napolitano: Not in that way, but it is regrettable because you’re exactly right to point out that she was one of a small number. But in that particular instance, it was questions of misjudgment and candor, and she was held accountable for that and so I don’t think gender had anything to do with those issues.

DeRuy: If Hillary Clinton is elected, she’s committed to a cabinet with at least 50 percent women. If she happens to call, would you be interested in returning to Washington and in what capacity?

Napolitano: Look, I get asked that question a lot. I’m glad for her commitment, you know, I just prefer not to answer questions on the “what if?” She needs to get elected, and I’m pretty committed to the University of California.

DeRuy: Anything you’d like to add?

Napolitano: It seems to me that we’re seeing a generation of women who are breaking down paradigms, and sometimes paradigms are called glass ceilings. I don’t know if I would use exactly that phrase, but what I’m getting at is that each generation builds on the work of the generation that came before it. So when my mentor, Judge Schroeder, was in law school, I think she was one of a few women in her class. When I went to law school, I think our class was almost 40 percent women. And so when I see those kinds of changes happening, it does give you hope for the future, and anything we can do to really analyze why there are so few women here or why there are so few women there and so forth and then deal with those issues, I think the better off we’re going to be.