When Nancy Pelosi was given the gavel as speaker of the House for the first time, she broke with precedent by posing for pictures at the podium surrounded by her grandchildren and children and grandchildren of other House members.
But when she was told that the House rules might not allow such a scene, she asked, “Who’s in charge of the rules?” The answer — the speaker of the House.
Pelosi recounted the anecdote to an admiring audience Tuesday evening at the first TED Women conference in Washington. The crowd gave her two standing ovations, a sign of support at a time when she’s preparing to give up that gavel due to the Democrats’ steep losses in the midterm elections. (TED is a nonprofit organization that spreads ideas through its conferences and itswebsite; it has a partnership with CNN.com to publish some of its talks.)
Pelosi, who is the first woman speaker and will become minority leader of the House in January, stressed the idea that women need to be leaders in their own way, not necessarily following in men’s footsteps. “We’re not there for the power,” she said. “We’re there to get a job done.”
She acknowledged that women are sometimes uncomfortable with the tactics required to get things accomplished. “That doesn’t bother me,” she said, to laughter, during an onstage interview with Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media.
“Men have been in charge for a very long time,” Pelosi added. “I think there’s room for other ideas.” She recalled her first visit as a minority leader to the White House during the George W. Bush administration. She said she felt she was sitting in a chair crowded by the spirits of women pioneers such as Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. “I could hear them say, at last we have a seat at the table,” Pelosi said.
A seat at the table also figured prominently in a talk at the TED Women conference by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, who lamented the small minority of top corporate leadership and governmental posts held by women.
Sandberg said women have to share the blame for that situation. “Women systematically underestimate their own abilities,” she said. By and large, she said, women do not negotiate for themselves.
“The men are reaching for opportunities more than women. We’ve got to get women to sit at the table,” Sandberg said.