On March 27, Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and a candidate in the 2016 presidential election, delivered the inaugural Peter S. Hagerman, ’61, lecture in ethics. Fiorina sat down with The Brown and White to discuss her experiences as a business leader and presidential candidate and her viewpoint on society’s treatment of women.
Q: You were the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company when you served as the CEO of HP. What was the experience like in a largely male-dominated field?
Carly Fiorina: Well, women are not granted the presumption of competence. We have to earn it. When a man goes into a job, people assume he deserves it. When a woman goes into a job, they say, ‘Prove it.’ Of course, that applied to me in spades. I stopped thinking about myself as a woman in business so long ago, but what I found is that other people hadn’t, so my first day at HP, I was stunned that everyone was asking me about being a woman. I had prepared to be asked about, ‘What are you going to do about innovation?’ ‘What are you going to do about the product line?’ and all these business questions, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the fact that I was a woman. It was very disappointing in some ways. I think I didn’t understand in the moment how symbolic it was for some people, and I was so focused on getting the job done. I remember being interviewed by Business Week — they have since gone out of business, but at the time, they were the premier business magazine — and the first question the editor asked me was what designer I was wearing. My point is, there were some things that happened that would never, ever have happened to a man. Those things were some version of infuriating, frustrating, enlightening. On the other hand, I had a job to do and people were depending on me to do that job, and most people quickly size you up based on, are you doing the job or not? And that’s fair.
Q: In your rise to the top, did you ever have to ignore or pretend that sexist or inappropriate comments or behavior didn’t bother you, or didn’t faze you as you were trying to do your job?
CF: Sometimes I ignored them, and sometimes I confronted them, and I would make those decisions at the time. I remember a boss — when I became a boss for the first time, and I had three subordinates, and that was a big deal for me — he introduced me to my new subordinates as, ‘This is Carly, our token bimbo.’ In the moment, I didn’t make a scene about it because I wanted to meet my employees. I kind of laughed and I went on and talked with each of my employees. Then, later, I went into his office and I shut the door and I was very calm, but I said, ‘You will never, ever do that to me again.’ And he was taken aback that I would confront him, but he then at least wanted to know why. And then we got into an interesting conversation about why that was inappropriate, why that was demeaning. Everything you can think of has happened to me. I have not been assaulted, thank God, but I have been propositioned, I’ve been groped — it happens. And yet, for every bad story, I could tell you about a guy, I can tell you 10 good stories about men who saw me for what I was, valued me for what I was and helped me get ahead. What I would say to young women is this: don’t get a chip on your shoulder and don’t hide your light under a bushel. What I mean by that is, you’re going to run into bad guys out there. Confront them, don’t put up with it, but understand not all men are like that. Not all men are bad, most men are good. Don’t hide your light under a bushel, and what I mean by that is don’t be less than you are because it makes some people uncomfortable. Be as smart as you are, be as brave as you are, be as tough as you are, be as good as you are. And if somebody else has a problem with it, particularly a man, it’s their problem. Don’t make it your problem. What I would say to men is: if you persist in wasting half the potential in your company, in your community, in your nation, you’re harming yourself. It’s stupid, it’s self-defeating, because talent is really important and human potential is all we got, and women have half of it.
Q: What would you say are the biggest lessons you took away from your experiences as a presidential candidate?
CF: In many ways, people are smarter than the politicians. That’s why I think citizens are the hope of this nation, not politicians. This will sound corny, but for all my railing about politics, it’s a pretty extraordinary country when somebody who started as a secretary can run for president and actually go a long way, go further than senators and governors. It says a lot about our nation. And as I said in my speech, inside the political system I don’t see a lot of catalysts for it to get better in the near term.
Q: Our editorial board recently had a conversation about whether professionals with no experience in the political arena could adequately serve as political officials. For example, someone being a successful CEO does not necessarily mean they will excel as a civil servant. How do you feel about this and has your opinion changed as a result of your experiences?
CF: No, I think actually my view is that we need more private citizens in government, not fewer. Having said that, there’s no question that government is different than business. There’s no question that government has three co-equal branches and business is an integrated whole. There’s some obvious, obvious differences. On the other hand, there are things that business can bring to the government that we’re sorely lacking. What do we measure? Accountability? Measure something. A notion that money actually matters, a dollar matters. Government acts as if the money isn’t real. A focus on results, rather than a focus on talk. Politicians, politics are about words. That’s not the same as results, it’s not the same as problem-solving. So, you don’t do things the same way in government you do in business — absolutely right. But, a focus on results would help politics. A focus on measuring things and being accountable for things would help government, and an understanding that a dollar actually matters, and you better know where you’re spending it and why.
Q: During your primary run for the presidency, Donald Trump made some disparaging remarks about your appearance. Do you think those comments were met with sufficient public outrage? As a whole, are we as a society complacent with these continuous comments about women’s appearances, and basing their value on their appearances?
CF: Yes, there’s way too much of it. I didn’t take the comments he made about me personally because he is an equal opportunity insulter. He insults everybody. He comments about Ryan Paul’s hair and ‘Little Marco,’ he just insults everyone. He does tend to focus on women’s appearance for sure, it’s inappropriate, but much of what he does is inappropriate. People know who he is by now — and he’s the president of the United States. But yes, part of what I meant out there when I was talking about the quality of our political discourse, is that we have normalized disrespect, all kinds of disrespect, and we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t normalize it. It happens on both sides. I remember when I was helping John McCain — you might not agree with all of his policies, but he is an honorable man, and he was routinely called a racist, all these insults. Donald Trump didn’t invent disrespect and insult. He may use it as a technique more often than others, but he didn’t invent it. But that constant level of insult and disrespect, we have normalized it. We shouldn’t, it infects everything. On the other hand, I think it’s sort of a cop-out for people to blame it on Trump. You go on Twitter, Facebook — honestly, what people say about their friends, their colleagues — you can’t blame Trump. That’s how they’re talking. I think disrespect is a poison, all kinds of disrespect, including disrespect of someone’s appearance.
Q: You mentioned in an interview with Fox News that there is a problem with the way Congress handles allegations of sexual misconduct. What exactly would you like to see changed?
CF: As usual, Congress preaches to everyone else and has a special set of rules for themselves. The special set of rules they have for themselves is, if someone makes a complaint before the complaint goes any further, they have to submit to psychological counseling for 30 days, which immediately means, ‘Oh you poor thing, you’re imagining it. Something’s wrong with you.’ Then, they have to submit to arbitration and then, if a payment is finally made, it’s secret, they can never talk about it and it comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets, not the perpetrator’s. Everything about that is unfair. It means that a young woman, or a young man — there were young men pages who were being harassed and assaulted by congressmen as well, we now know, although it’s more common with women. But, what it means is, anyone trying to come forward with a complaint is instantly discredited and discouraged from making that complaint. And there is no consequence if a complaint is real because no one ever knows the money was paid.
Q: You talked in your lecture about the fear of failure and fear of being criticized. How do we overcome these fears, especially with social media, where criticism can spread in a second?
CF: I know it’s easy for me to say because I am not growing up the same time you are, but, you just have to know it’s coming. Sometimes I think the shock of it all is part of the fear. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, people are criticizing me.’ It will come. It’s part of life, know that. The second thing I would say is, take the criticism for what it’s worth. In life, there are always two kinds of people. There are the people who will tear you down and the people who will lift you up. You have to make choices, and the right choice, the more healthy choice, the happier choice, is to go to the people who will lift you up and leave the people who will tear you down behind. However, it’s more difficult in this day and age because social media always lifts up the critics. People don’t get on social media and generally say, ‘Atta girl!’ Unfortunately, and it’s always been true, the people who log on are going to be the critics and the naysayers and the mean girls or boys. They’re not going to say, ‘Wow, that is just awesome.’ Sometimes, but not often. You have to be prepared for that. The last thing I would say is, there is nothing easy about it. The only way to get over fear is to walk through it, to keep going. But, as someone who has been afraid of many things in my life, and who has gotten to the point where I am afraid of literally nothing, I’ve learned that fear is like going to the gym. The first time you do it, it’s incredibly difficult. But the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more you do it, the more you want to do it, and the more you do it, the more capable you are of doing it. Getting over fear takes practice.
Q: In your lecture, you also touched on the polarization of politics today. How do we switch gears to, as you said, focus on problem-solving and making progress rather than ‘arguing to win’?”
CF: Start with ourselves. It’s so easy — what is social media? Yak, yak, yak. It’s so easy to point at other people and say, ‘Do this differently.’ It’s actually a lot harder but over time a lot more impactful, to say, ‘What am I going to do differently? What are we going to do differently?’ That’s why I have a lot of admiration for these high school kids (protesting for gun reform), even if I don’t agree with absolutely everything they are asking for — although it’s a pretty moderate list of things when you actually look at it. These are high school kids who just said, ‘We are going to do something.’ I think instead of hoping that Donald Trump will change, for example — which he won’t — instead of hoping in the near term that politicians will care about something besides winning — they won’t — we have to think about how we behave and the choices we make, and whether or not we are leading.