2018 Honoree

Catherine Hernandez-Blades

SVP, Chief Brand & Communications Officer, AFLAC

“The character attacks and personal assaults are really…a front towards our country’s values. We have to be transparent and bold to effect positive change, so I think we can learn to have the courage to have difficult conversations, radical candor if you will, and respectfully find solutions. I think you can legislate behavior with consequences, but I don’t think you can legislate values…”

In your opinion, what qualities make a “Power Woman”?

I think the ability to inspire others in their own unique way to support others and doing great things.

With all the different issues one could focus on, how do you balance your efforts in pursuit of gender equality? is it a global approach or a specific issue that you are passionate about?

What was striking to me is the disconnect of senior leaders’ innovations and HR departments in organizations and frank filling in employees because what they all thought was being done was very different, and there’s a huge disconnect. I think, personally, bridging that gap in the workplace and everything to clarity in pay and everything around gender-based policies. Also, to keep in mind that harassment isn’t really male to female, and you have a responsibility, as leaders, to show respect and protect the rights of all people–that means the accused and the accuser. It’s not just male and female, it can be female and male. You have to look at all angles, but I think the “Me Too Movement” started something and, just like all movements in history, it tends to start as a social movement and then business has to catch up. That’s everything from the race issues, to the 1960s, till today; it was a social movement and businesses had to adapt LGBT rights to the same thing. Social issues and businesses have to adapt around benefits of all these types of things.

If you could have someone else’s job for a day, who and what would it be? Why?

I would like to be, at this moment and time, be the President of the U.S. for one day because it’s just for one day and it would be to provide a plea for sustainability.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Abraham Lincoln, for me. There are so many reasons: 1) The fact that, when historians go back and try to personality profile him and answer the questions they think he would–Myers Briggs and all-–he and I had the same personality profiles in every test. He was very much a leader who did all the right things, which I admired no matter how difficult the cost, and those difficulties weighed on him in a very humanitarian way. But, he always used the greater good as his North Star, and he was also great at getting people together to see the higher mission to get a better purpose, and I think reconciliation would have been better if he hadn’t been assassinated.

Are you involved in politics at the local or national level? Why or why not? In what way do you work for women’s power and equality? What do you think is the number one action we as a society can take (e.g. affirmative action)?

I am in an extent legislation and regulation impact our business. The Aflac duck has a left wing and a right wing. I make sure nobody ever forgets that. I honestly don’t go beyond that because it’s too nasty and ugly of a business. The character attacks and personal assaults are really–-in my opinion–-a front towards our country’s values. We have to be transparent and bold to effect positive change, so I think we can learn to have the courage to have difficult conversations, radical candor if you will, and respectfully find solutions. I think you can legislate behavior with consequences, but I don’t think you can legislate values because that’s something that’s internal and you’ve got to change hearts and minds as well as just fulfilling quotas.

What issues in the workplace contribute most to the gender pay gap: Accessibility? Unconscious bias (including questions about previous salary requirements)? Economic? Reproductive? Or some other nefarious reason. Why do you think these are still challenges we face?

Unconscious bias is probably a huge problem of almost all of these. I think it’s the biggest, but specifically to the gender pay gap, stability, and stuff. You must be a brutal negotiator and that can be very, very uncomfortable. For me, I much prefer to let us build together, rather than negotiate back and forth, trying to get a win-win where no one is totally happy. I rather consensus bring it up a level because, at the end of the day, you can only really get to negotiate; so, you can do it in a different way, or in a different mind set. A theme that is much more sensible, like consensus building. I have negotiated with males and I’ve negotiated with females, and I find that men are much more comfortable negotiating for themselves than women are negotiating for themselves. Now, somebody is negotiating on behalf of their business, or a lawyer negotiating on behalf of the client, is a totally different ball game. But, when it comes to themselves, for some reason, women should be paid more than men in my experience, and I don’t want to overgeneralize it. It’s just my experience that they tend to have a harder time negotiating for themselves, and I think that’s part of the reason for the pay gap. You go into a job and want to negotiate the best package you can get upfront because all of your subsequence and raises and bonuses and all of that are contingent on the very first package. The difficult women label that as a risk, and that is also a fallback position for people who aren’t comfortable with strong women.

Can you tell us a short story in which you encountered a block in the workplace and what you did about it?

Absolutely, I’ll tell you a funny story. It’s a little bit lengthy, but for context: speaking of Abraham Lincoln and South Louisiana. I was named, by the governor, to appoint in Louisiana as the executive director of the Louisiana promotion and marketing board. At 31-years-old, I was the youngest secretary equivalent since reconstruction, hence the Lincoln movement. But, literally picture this: we were housed in the department of water life and fishery, and given the impact on the economy of Louisiana, the wildlife and fish had more authority than the Louisiana state police, and we had the march and the rivers and all the authorities. So, you had a secretary of water life and fishery, you had an under secretary of water life and fishery, and then you had me–and that was a group photo. So, all these guys were hunters and fishermen and all, but one who was a Cornell undergrad with the secretary of, both, water life and fishery. They all were wonderful for me–they all looked like the guys from Duck Dynasty…One day, they took me out and you see airplanes, and air boats are going against the march in my heels–big eye rolls for days and days. I never missed a beat, seeing a lot of airboats jumped in and out of the seaplane–I mean, I was just on. Every time meeting at the state capital after that…somebody would whisper in the back of the room and go testify in the committee and say, “Don’t let the high heels fool ya.” I wear it as a badge of honor until today. I was literally in a meeting with all of these men and I spoke up. I was on director level, youngest director at Larkees Martins, and a guy says, “we shouldn’t let you in the company.” But, a guy looked at me and said, “you don’t know anything, you shouldn’t be here, you don’t have a penis, and nobody said anything to you because you don’t have a penis.” I kept a stiff upper lip and held my ground in the meeting. It took me about four years to tell that story without crying. Immediately after the meeting was over, I went back to the hotel room and cried my eyes out.

I’ll share another example. We had a woman in our office who came overseas and woman in the room who was working lunch. We had an honesty box in the corner, so government people can drop there so weren’t violating SpN and all that fun stuff. And, at the end of the meal, I picked up my plate and moved it and one of the two secretaries in the office admonished me under her breath: “don’t do that.” So, I went to talk to her afterwards, and she had tears in her eyes. She said, “you have something, which I’ll never have, you have a seat at the table. Don’t diminish it because none of those men were gonna get up and wait for us to pick up their plates.” So, I found out she spoke five languages. I talked to the embassy, and she knows a translator at the U.N. She’s not in that country anymore and has a fabulous life in NY.

Do you think that asking previous salary requirements in job interviews contributes to the pay gap between women and men? NY State recently outlawed this practice. Should we push for a nationwide ban?

At Aflac, until you achieve marketing and communication you’re never gonna make much as an earphone. The work is different, it’s valued differently, it’s paid differently, the scale is different. But, up until you get the top senior ranks, you’re a parody between male and female. In fact, females doing a little tiny bit better are not statistically significant. So, we are paying for the performance and we are paying for the parody for the same job. I think, candidly, good for the nationwide ban so that there’s no trouble negotiating, but I’m realistic enough to know that, yes, there was a nationwide bank and all of the hedge runners registered there companies offshore somewhere so recruiters can ask a question. People have been called to know about jobs in NY, what’s happening now is that they’re getting recruiters to stage, so the recruiters can ask the questions, not NY.

Have you seen any changes in the political landscape for women over the past few years? If so, what are they?

I think they have, I think a good bit has to do with you. I mean, Hillary Clinton was treated much better today than Geraldin Ferraro in 1980, or even Sarah Palin when she ran with McCain.

Was there a defining moment or experience in your life that led you to where you are today? What was it?

I’ve been so fortunate and don’t take that for granted for a second. That being said, I remember I was about to leave for college at 17-years-old. It was a long and hot summer, and we did not tell our father until we told him in the driveway that I went to the University of Louisiana and they made me a better offer from a financial perspective. But, I remember going by my mother’s desk to kind of say farewell and head off to school, and her husband, also a chauvinist, looked at me and literally said, “A college education for a woman is a waste. All it does is teach her how to wear a diaper with a mess.” So, I knew at that point there was no way I wasn’t going to be successful. I was going to prove him wrong and it’s funny because, sometimes, you get your motivation from the most ignorant self reform. I remember that moment, and sitting here a little bit of me is trembling inside.

Do you believe that open access to porn (including violent video games, social media etc.) contributes to gender inequality and violence against women?

I think the issue is far too complicated to boil it down to a yes or no answer.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

This came from John Brown, a former CEO of British Petroleum, and he said: “You can’t have diversity without inclusion, inclusion must come first to bring up an inclusive culture, otherwise you’ll just keep hiring diverse candidates and they will continue to leave you.” Because most people think diversity is first, that really turns things on their heads. For me, like, “Oh, yeah. You got to build the environment first and then invite people.”

There are many studies that support the idea that a female presence in the boardroom increases the bottom line and leads to healthier work environments. What can we do to continue to support and enhance the growth and presence of women in high profile positions?

Well, first of all, look at the data. Companies with female representation on their boards perform better. Period, that’s a fact. Now, beyond that area, talk about the whole chicken and egg thing when you’re looking to fill a board of a public company, particularly. I’m guessing that’s what we are talking about here: about non-profit. You need certain skill sets on a board around financial business abutment, and that sort of thing is traditional. It is also traditional that, typically, men fulfill those roles in corporate America, so we need to start early with our young girls. Those skill sets, particularly in STEM, allows them to reach those places in the corporate environment that allows them to build the skill set they need to be viable candidates for the board. I look at woman that I admire, like Marilyn Susan–she was the CEO of Rocky Martins, whose phenomenal and achieved great things. I look at the fact that, from Northern Farmin, they announced that their next CEO is going to be a female, which is gonna be a first time in their history. It’s, again, traditionally male-dominated. I think when I worked for Rocky Martin it was 90% male. We shared the facility with the airforce and we had a manufacturing plant in it, plus there was zero space…I could walk around the building for days and rarely see someone who looked like me. Out of the 300 directors in the Aeronautics Division, only 30 of us were women.

Who do you most admire? Why?

Right now, it’s the Supreme Court, and I’ll tell you why for a couple of reasons. First of all, they put a more noble purpose above politics. They put the law and justice before politics, and they do it with such dignity and stability and they perform. They get the work done and there is something to be said for all of that in this day and age. They still put themselves above partisan politics. There are a lot of four to five decisions, but there are also a lot of seven decisions.

What is your favorite book (fiction or non-fiction)?

I love them all. I can tell you two books that I didn’t like. I didn’t like Gone with the Wind, and I’m probably the only person who read the book and not seen the movie. But, I don’t like books that portray women as spoiled and scheming and in a negative light, so everything else is okay. I flip back and forth. I will try to read a biography, and then something of fiction and history. I’ll tell you who my favorite writer is: James Lee Burt. I love his Roboseeure series, but I guess if you have to pin me down with one favorite book it will be Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burt. I just love the way he writes his language. I can’t read Hemingway.

What do you most value in your friends?


Which trait do you most deplore in yourself? In others?

I am very impatient and I hate that about myself and the trait I deplore the most in others is dishonesty.

What do you consider the most over rated virtue?

I don’t think any virtue is overrated.

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