When Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the graduates of the United States Naval Academy on Friday, she became the first female commencement speaker in its 175-year-history.
At the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, Harris told the graduates that they would be taking “an oath to support our Constitution and defend it against all enemies.”
“No matter what changes in our world, the charge in this oath is constant,” she emphasized.
Harris spoke of the immense challenges that graduates would face, including the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and cybersecurity threats.
She called climate change “a very real threat to our national security” and lauded the graduates for being part of the future for tackling the issue.
“I look at you and I know you are among the experts who will navigate and mitigate this threat,” she said. “You are ocean engineers who will help navigate ships through thinning ice. You are mechanical engineers who will help reinforce sinking bases. You are electrical engineers who will soon help convert solar and wind energy into power, convert solar and wind energy into combat power.”
She told the graduates that they would be critical in securing the country’s infrastructure.
“Foreign adversaries have their sights set on our military technology, our intellectual property, our elections, our critical infrastructure,” she said. “The way I see it, midshipmen, you are those experts on the issue of cybersecurity.”
She added: “We must defend our nation against these threats. And at the same time, we must make advances in things that you’ve been learning, things like quantum computing and artificial intelligence and robotics, and things that will put our nation at a strategic advantage. You will be the ones to do it because the United States military is the best, the bravest, and the most brilliant.”
Harris also praised the military officers who have helped vaccinate Americans across the country.
The vice president’s speech comes as the Pentagon accelerates the timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which will likely occur in mid-July, up from an earlier projected date of September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
She told the graduates that the September 11, 2001, attack “shaped your entire life, and it shaped our entire nation,” and said that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the fabric of American society.
“If we weren’t clear before, we know now: The world is interconnected,” she said. “Our world is interdependent. And our world is fragile.”
Harris also gave a nod to female graduates only 46 years since Congress mandated that women could be admitted to service academies.
“Just ask any Marine today, would she rather carry 20 pounds of batteries or solar panels, and I am positive, she will tell you a solar panel – and so would he,” she laughingly said.
She then paid respects to the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a graduate of the academy, whom she called “a great and courageous American.”
McCain, who passed away in August 2018, is buried at the US Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis.
“Most people don’t know he wanted to be buried next to his best friend who he met on the yard, Admiral Chuck Larson,” she said. “That is the ultimate example of what I mean, in it together.”
“No class gets to choose the world into which it graduates, and demands and the challenges you’re going to face in your career are going to look very different than those who walked these halls before you,” he told the graduates. “You chose, as a class motto – ‘We are the future.’ I don’t think you have any idea how profound that assertion is.”
In comes a new email from your boss. The subject reads, “You are invited … “
Your stomach flutters with anticipation. What could this possibly be about?
You open it up to learn … your boss is sending you to a “women’s conference.”
Every year, hundreds of women-focused business conferences are held across the globe. This is great, right? At first blush, it certainly feels great to be selected for one.
Wow! They must think a lot of me to choose me to participate!
Awesome! Who will I be able to mix and mingle with?
(Secretly) What will I wear? I need to stand out.
But pretty soon reality sets in.
Hang on. I’m already slammed. This is going to throw another monkey-wrench in my schedule.
Wait, why is Janice invited? She leaves every day at 4:00.
So, what are all the men doing that day?
What exactly are the chances that I’ll be volunteered to help organize this thing?
Women’s business conferences are a noble idea. If you’ve been to one, it’s hard not to be in awe of the passion, sophistication, and attention to detail demonstrated by the organizers and attendees.
But if there are so many amazing women’s conferences, why is gender diversity still such a massive issue in the corporate workplace?
Obviously, this is a complicated question. Improving women’s conferences isn’t a silver bullet, but considering how they miss the mark can shed some light on the problem as a whole.
My podcast cohost and I recently drew up a list of all the things we’ve generally disliked about the over 25 women’s conferences we’ve collectively attended. Here they are:
1. They are too politically correct and vanilla. There simply isn’t enough plain speak and authentic, hard-earned perspective.
Suggesting that women’s conferences should be less politically correct immediately brings to mind a HuffPost article that shared an insider look at a particularly egregious (and politically incorrect) conference held by Ernst & Young.
When I read this article, I gasped. And then laughed. The gist of it was a completely ludicrous education about how to rise in your career by working within the gender stereotypes of the 1960s: Eschew anything masculine (but don’t flaunt your body), approach men deferentially, avoid being assertive, and above all, avoid being authentic.
This is not the kind of political incorrectness we need.
Instead, what we need is less jargon and more real talk. We also need to laugh more; we face a lot of ridiculous things in the average work day, and sometimes simply laughing together about it helps us get through it all.
Cut the crap. No more phrases that have been done to death such as “lean in,” “executive presence,” “speak up,” etc. These are all solid ideas, mind you, but they’ve become meaningless with overuse. For example, the term “executive presence” infers that women have to change who they are to succeed. The result? Many of the most qualified women decide to opt out of the bigger roles. Women need authentic examples, preferably interesting ones, not buzzwords.
2. There are too many professional facilitators and consultants and too few women who have actually been in the trenches
Consultants have their place, and conferences definitely need facilitators to start – and keep – the balls rolling. But relying on academic advice from people who have never personally navigated the landmines of rising through the corporate ranks leaves a lot of expertise on the table.
Conferences need to do more than pay lip service to the idea that women can be leaders by allowing them to actually lead. Encourage them to share their experiences, their ideas, and their solutions. Another common issue with these conferences: Focusing on problems women are assumed to face without enough timely, tactical, or tangible advice on how to solve them.
If we want women to be leaders, we must make sure that the conferences aimed at that goal are interactive and offer opportunities to put those skills to use.
3. Organizing conferences is often a time suck for the very people they are supposed to be supporting
Too often, organizing a women’s conference falls to a woman who is already working her butt off in a leadership position. And although helping each other rise is a noble and worthy goal, the women leading the charge are generally forced to shoehorn the planning into an already tight schedule filled with all the other responsibilities of the job. One wonders: How many male executives spend hours on end organizing events for other men?
According to McKinsey’s “Women in the Workplace” study, companies’ commitment to gender diversity has gone up 13% since 2015. However, only half of employees think that gender diversity is a priority in their company. Could this be because it is left to women alone to lead the charge?
4. The conferences are too darn formal
Generally, a women’s business conference looks and feels like a conference designed for a very uptight, stuffy, unapproachable man. Everything – from the agenda to the seating – screams button up and mind your manners.
Is this really an environment that fosters the authenticity and vulnerability required to bring your best self to bear? We think not. Why not customize the experience to the attendees? What’s wrong with comfy couches, bean bag chairs, or (gasp) yoga pants?
To be fair, many icebreakers are not formal. In fact, they can be cheesy and sometimes downright offensive. This isn’t true across the board, but we’ve definitely experienced some doozies. Women may prefer comfortable clothes and humor, but we aren’t children. Drop the dumb games.
5. Women’s conferences only include, well, women
Though the intention behind female-only conferences is good, they still perpetuate the myth that women need to learn how to behave in order to become leaders. This is simply not true. The same leadership skills that work for men work for women as well.
We need conferences designed to challenge the idea that there is one right style of leadership – and that that winning style can only be achieved by straight white men. Yes, women must be included in these conferences, but so must leadership. How can we drive change without all the leadership in the room?
So what do we do?
Don’t try to change women for the job. Instead, enable them to change the job.
Though the EY conference is an extreme example, it highlights one of the biggest issues we have. We give advice to women focused on how to act just like those before them – whether male or female. For some reason, we believe there is only one way to be in order to be successful. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
When I was initially tapped for my first corporate executive position, I actually said, “No thank you.” I feared I’d have to become someone I’m not. I feared I would have to compromise my family, my health, and even my identity to be successful.
It took a while to realize that I have unique qualities that I could exploit (humor, humility, and the ability to inspire) and that the things that I wasn’t so good at (extensive travel, detailed operations) could be addressed by strengthening the team around me.
I love the quote by soccer legend Abby Wambach, “Imperfect men have been empowered and permitted to run the world since the beginning of time. It’s time for imperfect women to grant themselves permission to join them.”
We have got to stop pretending that there is a linear formula for being a successful leader. Instead, we must help women celebrate and exploit their unique, positive qualities.
Go ahead, hold women’s conferences, but shake them up … significantly
So, until we arrive at the nirvana that is true gender diversity (of all kinds, mind you), women’s conferences offer a unique opportunity for us to learn from each other. However, that only happens if the women attending and leading are allowed to show up as their authentic selves.
Showcase speakers that tell it like it is. Give real-life actionable examples of women who’ve crushed their careers without selling their souls, and play some fun music while you’re at it.
A few weeks ago, my podcast cohost and I experimented with something like this. Imagine a conference that kicks off with dancing and lip synching into a room packed to the gills with high-powered and successful women in the financial industry.
Not sounding so bold?
One of us was wearing a bedazzled tracksuit, and we may have had props, parody videos, and cheese cubes. And, it wasn’t just a show. We got real down and dirty about the things that helped us rise into executive positions. The crowd left incredibly inspired to be more of themselves, both in work and in their personal lives.
If we can’t shake up a conference, how can we hope to shake up the workplace?
It is time we start acknowledging that we must get much more creative in our approach to gender diversity if we ever want to have a shot at reaching parity.
We need to start asking the tough questions:
What is working and what isn’t?
What bold moves do we need to make to go from looking at gender diversity as a problem to solve and embracing it as an organic source of strength, especially in the corporate world?
Whether you’re a decision-maker or low down on the totem pole, one thing is clear. It is going to take all of us thinking well beyond the current conference box to get where we need to be.
A number of women are at the forefront of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, both at a Spanish and global level – from the first female president of the Spanish National Research Council to a researcher whose work in AI could reduce COVID-19 mortality by 50%.
While that percentage is slowly changing, there remain prominent gender gaps in STEM fields and women face more challenges than men in these sectors.
A study of 194 countries released last year suggested women-led countries handled the pandemic better than those led by men – and they’ve also played key roles in revolutionizing the pandemic response.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, here are 11 Spanish women who could hold the key to tackling COVID-19.
Sánchez-Felipe is researching a single-dose vaccine for long-term protection
Spanish researcher Lorena Sánchez-Felipe is working at the Rega Institute in Leuven, Belgium, to develop a vaccine that could change the course of the pandemic.
Her research group is creating a vaccine based on the yellow fever vaccine which carries a coronavirus antigen to train the immune system to recognize it. Sánchez-Felipe’s vaccine would protect people against both yellow fever and COVID-19.
She believes her vaccine could be especially vital in countries where yellow fever is still a problem and will also protect against COVID-19 in the long-term.
“We expect long-term immunity, given previous results we’ve seen with this type of vaccine,” Sánchez-Felipe told Business Insider España.
Sola is working on developing a COVID-19 vaccine in Spain
Senior scientist and co-director of the coronavirus laboratory at the National Center for Biotechnology at the Spanish National Research Council, Isabel Sola, has spent years researching the coronavirus family of infections.
Sola is now working to develop a vaccine based on a smallpox virus and is created using a virus that has been genetically modified to retain its reproduction properties. It thus goes from cell to cell with a controlled dose acting as a vector.
“From our experience with similar coronaviruses, this vaccine is 100% effective,” Sola told Business Insider España.
Del Val is a virologist and coordinates the Global Health platform
Spanish National Research Council virologist Margarita del Val has been one of the most visible faces of the pandemic response in Spain.
The expert coordinates the 150 teams brought together by the council on a large multidisciplinary research platform called “Global Health.”
Among the tasks carried out by the platform are the improvement of COVID-19 diagnostic systems, and they have pioneered a system for testing wastewater to identify whether the virus is spreading in a community.
Del Val has also been carrying out educational work during the pandemic and has warned of the need to be cautious about future possible waves and other pandemics.
Fernández-Sesma researches immune responses to COVID-19
Ana Fernández-Sesma directs a laboratory at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York which studies how certain types of viruses modulate our immune system, with a special focus on dengue.
The research she conducts on dengue places her among the five best-funded researchers by the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the United States.
Fernández-Sesma told Business Insider España she aims to understand “what the virus does to evade barriers in a host and how the host protects itself.” Uncovering this could change the pandemic response, as our immune response to the virus has still not been fully understood.
She has also joined a group of researchers evaluating the immune system’s response to the virus in an effort to understand how it differs among patients.
Oliver is an AI expert working on predicting the evolution of the pandemic
Nuria Oliver has established herself as one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence experts. In her capacity as authority-appointed high commissioner for AI in Valencia.
Oliver works with a research group that tries to communicate the real data of the pandemic to those in charge of making decisions.
The group tries to predict the behavior of the virus using different potential scenarios, answering key questions like how many people will be infected and modeling human mobility.
During the 2009 influenza pandemic in Mexico, Oliver analyzed aggregate data from cell phone networks to investigate the effectiveness of government measures.
She also spearheaded a macro-survey to assess the impact of the measures adopted during lockdown that has warned of the increased socialization in risky environments.
Marco leads a project that focuses on preparing for subsequent waves
Spanish National Research Council professor Pilar Marco is the head of Nanobiotechnology for Diagnostics (Nb4D). The tool could revolutionize the pandemic response.
Marco leads a team researching devices that can simultaneously and rapidly detect several biomarkers of COVID-19 infection.
These quick detection diagnostic systems could prepare the world better for any future outbreaks of COVID-19.
Rodríguez is improving diagnoses and treatments through AI at IBM
Astrophysics and cosmology specialist María Rodriguez uses her knowledge of quantitative technical tools to help doctors provide better diagnoses and suggest individual treatments.
The computational biologist works with IBM applying artificial intelligence to the healthcare sector, focusing on integrating high-throughput molecular datasets to build comprehensive models of disease.
This sector could transform the treatment of cancer and immune and degenerative diseases, Rodriguez told Business Insider España.
García Vidal is working on an AI solution that could cut mortality in COVID-19 patients by 50%
Head of the Covid Digital Control Center at the Hospital Clínic in Barcelona, Dr. Carolina García Vidal, is leading one of the 207 projects named by the European Institute of Innovation as providing a better response to the healthcare crisis.
García Vidal’s initiative uses artificial intelligence to monitor the evolution of patient systems, anticipating the worsening of the disease.
Rosa Menéndez is the first female president of the Spanish National Research Council
In 2017, Rosa Menéndez became the first female president in the 80-year history of the Spanish National Research Council.
An organic chemistry graduate from the University of Oviedo, Menéndez is confident that the council will produce the first Spanish vaccine to fight COVID-19, with reports suggesting it could be ready by the end of 2022.
The red lipstick is a signature of mine, but you might be surprised to know that it is not a color I prefer. If you knew me from years back, you would have seen me in paler, more neutral colors. I wanted to be noticed for my intelligence, not my luscious lips.
It was Lucille Ball who inspired me, when she was reported as painting her lips a
bright red color to be less threatening to men even though she was in a position superior to theirs.
There it was! Another way to be less threatening. I went right out and bought several shades of red.
Who would’ve thought there would be such influence in a pair of red lips – something that I had always considered inappropriate for a work setting. It almost seems simple-minded that people can be swayed by the color of a person’s lips. But then again, is it not equally incredible that I am compelled to make these considerations to boost my gender and racial acceptability in the business world?
These adjustments are only part of the little big things that added to my back door experiences.
So, my question is, “How can anyone feel so threatened by me?” I am a mere 5′ 7.” Yet I am told that my personal presence and conversational articulation have caused others to fear me; yet I am often complimented for displaying an executive presence.
The perception lies in the insecurities of the beholder. I can only conclude that there are antiquated preconceptions still in existence whereby an African American woman speaking with any type of self-confidence, knowledge, and authority can somehow be mistaken as having defensive and passive-aggressive behavior by my white peers and leaders. However, their constant micro-aggressions, insults, and sarcastic tones were acceptable when I was asked to train on emotional intelligence. Yes, I am laughing out loud!
I want African American women to know that the onus is most definitely not on you. It is not your hair, your tone, your weight, height, or what lipstick color you wear. It is not a problem you should bear. The problem is in the eye of the beholder.
Just yesterday, I helped a young woman of color put together a plan to navigate her next career move. After we were done, I said to her (and I would iterate the same to you), once you check off all these boxes, and they tell you that it is enough, and you still don’t get the promotion, then make a decision to find a place where you will be celebrated versus tolerated!
You owe it to yourself and to everyone around you to celebrate who you are, to be confident in your abilities, and to receive the rewards of your hard work. I know that there are companies out there that will offer you this, and if not, create your own, because you are just that damn good!
In the book, a young girl watches a woman on television be called “too ambitious” and “too assertive.” In response, she vows to become a persistent, assertive, confident, and proud individual.
Harris has been working to get this book — in addition to her last one — into schools and has partnered with the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books to donate hundreds of book copies to educators and students.
Ahead of her aunt’s inauguration, Harris talks to Insider about her new book, and what is needed to raise the next generation of ambitious women.
The entrepreneur founded Phenomenal Woman, which creates products addressing sociopolitical injustices, and has another career as a children’s author. Her latest endeavor is a children’s book entitled “Ambitious Girl.” Set to be released on January 19, the book tells the story of a young girl who learns to embrace her ambitions in life.
“For young girls to see someone who looks like them elected, to the second-highest office in the land, is really an incredible feeling that we’ve all been fighting for a very long time,” she told Insider. Previously, Meena Harris spoke to Insider about her career paths and growing up in a family of lawyers – ambitious women who inspired her to become who she is today.
When it comes to women, the word ambition often has a negative connotation, Harris said. Last year, Insider reported on a study by American Express and The New York Women’s Foundation, which found that many women didn’t like using the word ambitious to describe themselves and wanted to use the word “motivated” instead.
“Language has power and words have meaning,” Harris told Insider. “We do not typically hear ambition being used against men, or used to critique men. I don’t think I’ve ever really heard that before. It’s about reclaiming and redefining words that, even though they’re just words, we know they have power.”
Ahead of her aunt’s big day, Meena Harris spoke to Insider about her new children’s book, what she learned growing up in a powerhouse family, and what else is needed to raise the next generation of ambitious women.
‘It’s not just the work of women to do on behalf of other women,’ Harris said
Her family always tried to lead by example when it came to inspiring each other, she said. Ambition was a good thing to have in her family – and ambitious women were all she knew.
“I grew up in a family of strong, ambitious women,” she said. “My grandmother Shyamala, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist, raised my mom and aunt – and later helped raise me – to fight for change and be role models for others,” she said. “She would say to us, ‘You may be the first, but don’t be the last. It’s actually a line I put into my new book ‘Ambitious Girl.’ “
After graduating from Stanford University and Harvard Law, she had a brief legal career and held jobs at both Slack and Uber. As reported by the New York Times’ Jessica Testa, she was also a campaign surrogate for her aunt. As she entered the workplace, she told Insider, she realized that many women weren’t raised to see ambition as a good thing.
“It’s a very worthwhile activity to sit down with your kids and start early to define these words,” she said. “On the topic of leading by example, there are many ways that you can demonstrate what it means. And at the very least, encourage them to understand [ambition] as a positive, not a negative.”
In her latest book, a young girl takes advice from the women around her, including her mother and her grandmother, who teaches her the importance of growing up assertive, confident, and proud. Harris said that listening to the dreams and career paths of other people is a good way to teach people how to embrace their own ambition. It shows that ambition isn’t a “dirty” word and having dreams is not a “bad” thing.
This is a lesson that needs to be taught, not just to young women, but to everyone, she said. Because creating an environment that can foster ambitious women is not something left up to women to create. This act requires a complete societal and cultural shift, Harris said.
“It’s about a patriarchal society,” she continued. “It’s not just the work of women to do on behalf of other women. Men who, by default have more power in the world and in most of these systems, it’s up to them to do that as well.”
In the meantime, all women have to do to be ambitious, is to simply not hide their ambition, she said. It’s about wearing that sweatshirt embroiled with the word ambitious on it, she said. It’s about naming what you want and claiming it for yourself – writing your dreams and building toward what you want. For instance, Harris has plans to release more books. “There’s still so much work to do, especially when it comes to increasing diversity in publishing,” she said. “I definitely have plans for more books – I can’t wait to explore topics for older audiences as well.”
It’s about changing the language that one associates with their dreams, to reflect the positivity of what it means to aspire. “This is literally about as cheesy as it sounds, but what are your hopes and dreams?” she said. “The beauty of that is, it means different things to so many different people.”