In this interview, Condoleezza Rice reflects on the importance of finding your professional passion, standing up for yourself, creating a network of support, advancing in a male field, and finding joy in the everyday.
You once said that you shouldn’t let anyone else define you -- do what you love and forget about the rest. What advice would you give women who find their passion later in life, when they may already have careers and families?
It’s never too late. We’re all constantly in the process of reinvention, whether it’s changes in personal circumstances or, in my case, I finished one chapter to move onto another chapter. I think we’re all works in progress.
You’ve said that “women should not cede confidence to men.” What advice would you give women who find it challenging to project confidence in the workplace and even ask for what they want?
It’s very difficult because I don’t know where confidence comes from. I myself have felt very confident in some circumstances and not very confident in others. You just have to tell yourself you’re worth something to your company or whomever. If you’re not requesting something unreasonable, you just have to do it.
Millions of successful and deeply fulfilled women have chosen not to get married or have a family. What have you done to create a strong and nurturing network of people in your life?
I’ve been lucky because I have that family. After my parents died, I had an extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins – who are very close and have nourished me over many, many years. I have cultivated & been around many good friends, several who have been in my life 25 – 30 years. You just can’t take them for granted. No matter where I was in the world, no matter how hard I was working, I tried to make sure that I stayed in touch & saw people. You will make new friends, but your old friends are your best friends. It takes a little bit of work.
For women who are not married, there’s a tendency to assume that you can work all of the time and you don’t have the demands of children or a husband to go home to. I’ve been known to tell people – I can’t do that because I have something I’m doing with my friends or it’s my aunt’s birthday and I’m taking her out to dinner. You just have to make that time.
Many men believe that there are no longer obstacles facing women in the workplace. Many women disagree. What can women do to help eliminate these obstacles?
Women who have navigated successfully need to go back and help women who are trying to learn to navigate. The first thing I tell young women entering the workforce or entering the university is – men are not afraid to network. They aren’t afraid of the label that they knew somebody to get to where they are. Everybody knows somebody to help get to where they are. This notion that there’s a pristine environment out there where you don’t have to have connections is peculiar.
I tell women – yes, network – yes, use your connections. You have to be qualified. Somebody isn’t going to advocate for you if you’re not good, but by all means, all of us need to have connections and you need to nurture them.
What advice do you have as a woman who achieved great success in a predominantly male field?
It’s not helpful to have a chip on your shoulder. For example -- I worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff on a fellowship -- in the basement of the Pentagon. It doesn’t get more male than that. The first day they said the most junior officer makes the coffee the first week. I could have taken offense & said I don’t make coffee. I was a PhD, a professor at Stanford. But I said “Fine – I hope you like it the way I make it.” It turns out I make coffee that can walk. And they never asked me again.
So I think you have to relax a little bit. You can absolutely burn yourself out & raise your blood pressure to unsustainable levels if you take everything – in my case, a racial or gender slight - seriously, and man the ramparts against it. You need to relax a little bit.
What do you know now that you wish you had known earlier in your professional career?
You always have doubts about how good you are. It’s a good thing. You always overestimate how good they are. Maybe women do that a little bit more. I just think men cover it a little bit better. And I say that not from my own experience, but from being a faculty mentor to young women and men on the faculty. When I was Provost, I was asked to bring in a diversity officer. The idea was that junior faculty women needed mentoring. But men needed it too. They’re just as scared. They just learn not to say it -- or show it.
If you had one extra hour each day, how would you spend it?
I’d spend it playing the piano more. I try to play 4 -5 times a week for a couple of hours. In Washington, I was lucky if I played every weekend. I now play with my chamber group.
Outside of work, what brings you joy?
Sports brings me joy. I played golf this weekend – badly. Music brings me joy. Being with my family and my friends. I have a lot of joy in life. I’m the luckiest person in the world and the most blessed. I had great parents. I have great family. I have wonderful friends and things that I love to do. I have a vocation that’s also my avocation where I got to practice at the highest level. What’s not to be joyful about? I have great faith in God. I don’t believe we were put on this earth to be dour. I know there are difficult times in life. The loss of my parents was difficult. But most of the time you ought to be happy.
Condoleezza Rice is the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution and professor of Political Science at Stanford University. Previously she served as the 66th secretary of state of the United States. Before serving as America’s chief diplomat, she served as assistant to the president for national security affairs and as Stanford’s provost.