Former Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire delivered a message of inclusion, education, reassurance and resolve to a packed auditorium Wednesday at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Named Fred Hutch board chair in July, Gregoire was tapped to speak on the importance of developing leadership roles for women in politics, public policy and public service, a topic tinged with a certain irony considering the results of the recent presidential election. The election and its subsequent uncertainty, in fact, dominated much of the hour-long Hutch Diversity Council talk, which was moderated by Juan Cotto, director of Outreach, Diversity and Inclusion.
“I was stunned beyond belief,” Gregoire told the audience in response to Cotto’s first question as to how she felt watching the country’s first female presidential candidate go down in defeat. “I grew up as a teenager in college in the ‘60s, and if you grew up during that period and you were a woman, you dedicated yourself to civil rights and women’s rights. And this year, it all came home in this election for me. I thought we had accomplished what we set out to do and, in fact, we hadn’t made as much progress as we hoped at all.”
Gregoire said the election keenly demonstrated to her that the country has “a civil rights and a women’s rights issue of amazing proportion,” but she also was quick to offer hope and encouragement to those who might feel discouraged.
“We survived it in the ‘60s,” she said. “We grieved and recovered and we will do just that in this instance. Clearly what [was] set out as an agenda is by no means fulfilled … I’m a believer that government ought to look like the country it serves.”
The longtime public servant credited President John F. Kennedy with instilling in her a passion to “give back,” although she wryly acknowledged that her youthful passion for public service was tempered by a realization, early on, that she wouldn’t be able to “save the world as a Clerk Typist II,” one of the few jobs available to a woman at the time.
She also spoke admiringly of her mother, a short-order cook and single mom, whose high school education was cut short by the war and family responsibilities, but who encouraged her daughter to go on to law school even when others told her she was overstepping.
“[My mother] had three goals in life for me,” she said. “Education, education, education. Her theory was very simple. It’s the one thing no one can take away from you. To this day, that’s what I say to my girls and now I say it to my grandchildren. I never learned there was a glass ceiling because to her, there wasn’t. It didn’t exist.”
Gregoire went on to talk about her career, one in which she managed to shatter more than a few glass ceilings. After graduating from Gonzaga Law School in 1977 — one of 12 women out of a class of 320 — she became assistant attorney general, and followed that as Washington’s first-ever female deputy attorney general. In 1992, she was elected state attorney general and served as Washington’s second female governor from 2005 to 2013.
“I have sat at many, many, many tables where I was the only woman, and that is not healthy,” she said. “The best outcome is when you have all those voices sitting at the table, whether black or white, gay or straight, male or female. [We] need representation at that table because all of those perspectives come into play.”
Whether in politics or careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Gregoire said it’s essential that everybody gets a seat at the table.
“I’m a big proponent of young women seeing themselves in STEM,” she said. “If you live in this area, the jobs of tomorrow are STEM-degree related. That’s why I’m out there in the middle schools and the high schools trying to get these young women to see these amazing opportunities — and to get involved with STEM. We have a ways to go but I think we’re making some progress.”
Fred Hutch fosters diversity through Hutch United, which along with mentoring and professional development, offers fellowships to world-class scientists from diverse backgrounds. It also participates in the Technology Access Foundation (TAF) Academy, regularly offering high school students of color and low-income a chance to partner with Hutch scientists in order to whet their appetite for a career in science and medicine.
But how, Cotto asked, can the Hutch let potential hires know that diversity is highly valued?
“You have to send a message that it’s a welcoming place,” said Gregoire. “You cannot have one or two people of color or one or two women and think it’s going to work.”
Gregoire said that during her term as governor she would often hear about students of color who would receive scholarships to universities and then drop out — not because they couldn’t “cut it” academically, but because there were no other students of color in their classrooms.
“You’ve got to make it clear that it’s warm and welcoming,” she said. “My cabinet was over 50 percent women. I did not go out and look for women. But because I was a woman governor, women applied. It’s the same with Barack Obama. I do not believe he went out and looked for people of color to surround him in his administration. But they applied.”
The Hutch, she said, is “very determined” to send a welcoming, supportive message to women and underrepresented and self-identified minorities.
“I know that’s true from the top and at the board level and obviously by your presence here,” she said. “That message goes out and we will become a healthier workforce here at the Hutch.”
Gregoire went on to offer some career advice to women, particularly those who have been socialized to undercut their accomplishments.
“Women need to get over this thing about how they’re not qualified,” she said. “They always feel they have to do an extra thing, they have to do more. They’re also deplorable about how much they need to be paid. If we’re going to be successful in private and public careers, in nonprofit careers, we need to get over the ‘we’re not qualified’ or the ‘we have to be overly qualified’ or the ‘we can’t be aggressive about looking for a promotion or getting a pay increase’ or what have you. That is not equality. It just isn’t.”
In response to questions from the audience, she also talked about the current political climate and the oftentimes misogynistic and racially charged rhetoric of the campaign.
“I will not let that rhetoric beat me or you or anybody else down,” she said. “It was wrong. Fundamentally wrong. We need to make sure that we stand up for those who feel left out and left behind because of the election — that is our responsibility now, to take the fear out of it. No one person can change this country. It is a country based on the fundamental premise that we are all equal. Period.”
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutch. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at email@example.com.