2017 Honoree

Libby Archell

Chief Communications Officer, Arconic

“In terms of policies to pursue, any policy or initiative that starts with equality and justice as its goal–from access to education, universal healthcare, to paid family leave–will benefit women.”

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

A woman who uses her influence to empower: her team, her cause, her community, other women. Those who have power and influence control who they pass it to. As women leaders, we can make a significant difference to how power is balanced if we are conscious of bringing other women up alongside us.

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?

I have always been incredibly passionate about breaking down gender barriers and eliminating inequality. My very first job out of college was working for a non-profit that supported women athletes and helped prevent young women from “dropping out” of physical activity. One of my earliest career successes was publishing a healthy lifestyle guide for adolescent girls that busted body image myths and encouraged positive lifestyle decisions. I was 20 at the time, and the research I did on that project opened my own eyes to how destructive media messages that young women are exposed to can be.

Over time and as my career has evolved–and I’ve been exposed to the many barriers women face at work–my focus has also evolved. Today, I center my efforts on the success of women in the corporate world. This has many facets. Locally, it’s about making a difference in my own sphere through mentoring, sponsorship, and advocacy of high potential women around me, and also driving policy change around parental leave and flexible work options. Further afield, I serve on the Board of Advisors of Catalyst Inc., which does amazing work globally to support the advancement of women in the workplace.

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

I’d like to play a role in shifting how women are represented in media and society at large. I strongly believe that to change perspectives and shift the current paradigm we need to “program” our children differently. The media, literary and entertainment industries, have such a powerful role to play through the imagery they use and subliminal signals they send the very young.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media–See Jane–did a study of characters in G-rated films that showed a drastic underrepresentation of women, and even more starkly, of women who worked. Their data showed that just 30% of all characters in these films were female, and of the characters who were employed or working in some capacity, 80% were male and just 20% were female. The world of children’s books is much the same: a 2011 Florida State University study found that just a third of picture books published between 1900 and 2000 featured a female character, while male characters appeared in almost all books.

See Jane has a powerful slogan: “If She Can See it, She Can Be It.” If I could step into someone else’s shoes to make immediate change in this space I would, whether it was introducing more strong female characters into children’s film and television, or into children’s books. As the recent reaction to Wonder Woman shows, there is an incredible opportunity to inspire young girls from the start and show them that they can be the star of the show–whatever that means for them.

Why do you think women’s reproductive rights are under attack? Globally, it seems women’s health and security are under such attack; from religion, to cultural attitudes, to lax government protection, women are more vulnerable than ever. What policies would you propose that the US government pursue (or change) to alter this.

I’m not certain I would agree that women are more vulnerable than ever. History is replete with examples of systemic oppression and subjugation, but it is nevertheless true that even in this modern era women still have a long way to go to reach equality and full justice. The idea that a decision, such as reproductive rights, that so intimately affects women should lie anywhere but with women themselves is a reflection of the global balance of power. In terms of policies to pursue, then, any policy or initiative that starts with equality and justice as its goal–from access to education, to universal healthcare, to paid family leave–will benefit women.

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 don’t believe there is any single way to increase or advocate for women’s empowerment, it needs to be a facet of everything we do. One way I think we continue to see progress in the corporate world is by being deliberate in our focus on diversity. Over the past ten years at my company, I have seen us make meaningful strides, in part because we made a conscious decision to tie our leaders’ financial incentives to the diversity of our workforce. Specifically, we link increased global female employment and U.S. minority employment in our professional and executive ranks to annual bonuses. I am proud to say we exceeded our 2016 targets and closed the year as a more diverse organization. We are still not where we want to be, but every year we get a little closer.

Looking past the corporate world to global priorities, if we are to increase women’s empowerment we MUST start with girls’ education. When girls are allowed to go to school–or allowed to stay in school–their education and the options that education gives them have a significant impact on their family and community. According to Camfed, educating a girl results in her earning up to 25 percent more. Not only does this give girls and women a level of independence and freedom–helping break the cycle of poverty and oppression that exists in too many parts of the world–but, because educated women invest 90 percent of their income in their families, it also means their children are more likely to go to school (and be immunized). It’s hard to think of a better, more effective use of resources or policy.

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?

As a new mother, one issue that continues to disappoint me is the regressive thinking around parental leave and flexible work models. The state of family leave in general needs addressing, and urgently. Childcare is a family issue, not a women’s issue.

Having grown up in a country that has paid leave, it is unfathomable that many women in the United States have no choice but to return to work before they are physically or emotionally ready, and before their infant is ready to be separated from them. The unfortunate reality is that many women often make the choice to leave the workforce rather than return to work before they are ready. As a result, their careers take a hit and often never recover. A study by the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers found that women who took advantage of New Jersey’s paid-family-leave policy were far more likely than mothers who hadn’t to be working nine to twelve months after the birth of their child. Many companies are out in front on this issue and those companies are identifiable by their reputations as employers of choice. Google’s former SVP of People Operations at Google, Laslo Block, said: “The attrition rate for women after childbirth was twice our average attrition rate…After making the change in leave, the difference in attrition rates vanished.”

We must work to eliminate the traditional career paradigm that was developed in a very different era and recognize that there is a real cost to the current lack of paid family leave and limited availability of flexible-work options.

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

If there were only just one! I think the challenge most leaders have in their day-to-day professional life is encountering many blocks, often at the same time. Our success often depends on our ability to navigate both the organization, the blocks, and frankly, our own bias, to find a solution that works for everyone. I try to be conscious of where the other person is coming from, and influence by talking their language. Sometimes you can’t remove a block, but you can work around it and get to the same place. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to break through a brick wall. Not everyone can be changed. Work where the energy is.

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?

I’m not sure this is the root cause of the gender pay gap, but certainly may be a contributing factor. To truly eliminate the gender pay gap we need to increase visibility of pay differences inside of companies. Today, it is very opaque. If women don’t know what the “norm” is for any given role, it’s difficult to advocate that their pay is out of step. Many companies know they have an issue, but refuse to release the data for fear of public criticism or employee outrage. Those companies who are brave enough to do so are the ones that are sincerely trying to change the game. We are seeing the beginnings of a trend, particularly among tech startups–companies like Buffer–to be transparent about all employees’ salaries, not only to close the gender gap, but to level the playing field between skilled and novice negotiators (women at all levels often fall into the latter category). We need to encourage, not shame companies who come forward and say, “Yes, we have an issue, but here’s what we are going to do to fix it.” And, we also need to teach and empower women to become advocates for themselves–in life, in general, you don’t get what you don’t ask for.

But, ultimately, as we have seen from recent news stories, inequality in pay is a symptom, not a cause, of many of the things we’ve talked about here.

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

Yes. To quote Hillary Clinton: “The future is female.” But, I don’t take that as a given. As Secretary Clinton also said, “We need strong women to step up and speak out. We need you to dare greatly and lead boldly.”

When I was younger just seeing a woman politician was something remarkable. Today, we don’t blink when we see Chancellor Merkel or Prime Minister May–or candidate Hillary Clinton. But again, winning the election is just one aspect of progress. We really want women’s political empowerment from the grassroots up–women who have informed political opinions and aren’t afraid to voice them. Women who vote in numbers to effect change. Women who define the political agenda.

I have always thought that we will know we are where we want to be when people stop commenting on what women wear on the podium, and when normal behavior stops being remarkable. For example, in Australia, Larissa Waters of the Greens Party became the first Australian politician to breastfeed in Parliament. On the one hand, it was a significant step forward. On the other, why should something so mundane attract so much media attention?

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

I only worked for women managers for the first twelve years of my professional life. Over that time I had exposure to four amazing female leaders. They were incredible role models to me. I knew that if they had those jobs, I could too one day. I don’t think it was the only thing that led me to where I am, but it heavily influenced my own leadership style. Having my early career so heavily shaped by strong, successful women taught me to bring my authentic self to work, and built my confidence to wholly contribute. It was very foundational for me.

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

I have not studied the issue closely, but I think in any democratic society the potential harm of any kind of free speech must be weighed against the value of protecting such a fundamental right. Whether as companies or as a society, our values cannot be situational. So, while I agree there is a lot to be troubled by in terms of the way women are treated and represented in many forms of media, there is no single solution, and certainly no easy one.

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

Don’t ask. Go until someone tells you to stop: nine times out of ten they won’t, and before they realize it, you’ve changed the way things are. It’s another way of saying, “be confident, be bold, don’t ask for permission–seize your opportunity.”

There are many studies that support the idea that a female presence in the board room 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?

At Arconic, I’m proud that we’ve had a diverse board for many years; about 30% of our directors are women, and our Chair Patricia Russo is a force! I am privileged to work with these women and learn from them. There are many studies that prove that having more women in the boardroom leads to healthier and stronger businesses. But, I don’t think we should fall into the trap of justifying our inclusion in the boardroom. When was the last time we heard a discussion about the benefit of men in the boardroom? We’ll know we have reached the right place when we can stop making the case. To get there we need to start early and show boys and girls that their options are equally limitless.

Who do you most admire? Why?

I admire women who support other women, who set an example for not tearing down or criticizing other women. Michelle Obama embodied this combination of strength and inner confidence. Her work to empower and educate girls and fill them with self confidence is inspiring. I admire women who are starting companies and creating their own opportunities–entrepreneurs like Katrina Lake of Stitch Fix. And, I admire the women who are doing their thing, every day, outside of the public eye. Women like my grandmother, who single handedly raised two children while running a business in the 50s. It is the role models who are closest to us who have the biggest impact on our perception of what’s possible and what we’re capable of.

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

Baby Halder’s autobiography, A Life Less Ordinary. It underscores that while women in developed countries are still fighting for equality, women in many other parts of the world are struggling with even more elementary barriers. Her bravery and tenacity in the face of almost insurmountable adversity is an inspiration to women everywhere. For the next generation of power women–including my own daughter–my absolute favorite is Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty. The line: “The only true failure can come if you quit,” says it all.

What is your favorite place on earth? Why?

I grew up on the beaches of Western Australia. There is nothing like going back to the place that calms you, centers you, and reminds you who you are and what’s really important.

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