Interview with Judith Barnett
June 27, 2010
What was your best career decision?
Definitely my best career decision was going to law school. I moved to Washington in the early 1970s, as a doctor’s wife in the suburbs. A few years later I found myself to be a divorced mom with a wonderful two year old daughter and a teacher’s degree. I was unclear how I would be able to support my daughter and myself on a teacher’s certificate. But I was from a family who had always had participated in politics and being in Washington, decided that I would try to join the new Carter Administration. Over the next few years, I taught myself to be a speechwriter, meetings planner, and public affairs specialist. After Carter lost re-election, I realized that although it was outstanding to be a public servant, there was no stability in politics and I needed to return to school to get the professional training that I was denied as a young woman growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. I worked during the day, went to law school at night with my little daughter sitting next to me, as she did her homework and then went home to do my homework late into the night. It was strenuous, but worth every late night.
Twenty years ago when you were working full-time and attending law-school, there weren’t many resources available to single working moms. How did you manage it all?
I just knew from my earlier experiences that I needed independent credibility to get “in the room.” I always counsel younger women to get as much education, as myc professional training as possible before they assume the responsibilities of the real world. And to build a nest egg. I never had one during those times. I remember one night, I went to the ATM machine to get cash for my dinner with a friend and had 65 cents. I was juggling a lot and at times, it seemed like I was holding things together with bubble gum and string!
What kept you waking-up each day during those years?
It was 100% blind perseverance and blind hope. I had a fear of success and a fear of failure so it balanced out and I made it. I had doubts, though, hourly.
When you were building your career, did you have a mentor along the way?
In the Carter administration, there were very few women. In fact, we had photographs of all the senior women in government and they fit on one small poster. So we started networks on every level. We helped each other with our jobs, personnel issues, children. Through the networks I found out about a position in the then “new “Department of Education. I worked for a woman, Liz Carpenter, who had worked for President Lyndon Johnson and we both worked for the first Secretary of Education, a former judge from California named Shirley Hufstedler. After that experience, I sought out other women mentors, throughout law school, in firms, in government. It makes me sad when I hear young women say “I can’t work for a woman.” It’s always a mix, whether male or female.
How do you seek out a mentor when there aren’t formal programs in place?
I would find someone a bit older that had done something – generally in my field —that I had not yet done. That someone should also have a generosity of spirit. I’d find them anywhere in the organization and would ask for 10 minutes of their time. Sometimes it didn’t happen, but that was fairly rare. There had to be a connection, patience, willingness and it would often grow from there. In law school, there weren’t mentoring programs so I set one up with a wonderful group of women, ages 35 – 55, who had had one or two previous careers and were just starting law school. The young students were interested in dating and finding the perfect jeans for class. We were interested yet overwhelmed with everything in our lives — children, husbands, jobs, classes, bills. We have now gone through everything in life together, and still meet, every month, twenty years later.
What was your biggest challenge throughout your career?
Being a single mom, doing it right, knowing that each growing moment might never come back again. I wouldn’t hang around the various offices that I worked at after 6 pm, even though I knew that those were often the times that decisions were being made. And there was loads of gender discrimination in the practice of law in the 1980s. I went to interview for a first-year summer associate position. The partner was asking questions and at the end, he concluded, “Girl, what you need is not a summer associateship, what you need is a husband.” I think this kind of thinking is changing. Not so much in my generation, but in my daughter and son-in-law’s.
How does this translate in benefits for women today?
A large percentage of medical, law and graduate school classes now have female majorities. So women are getting the training and it’s an exciting era. Having worked with Hillary Clinton, there is a recognition that we can do anything; although not necessarily at the highest levels yet. I think there is a plexi-glass ceiling and we’re not going to get certain positions easily, such as CEOs and board directorships. Only 16 out of the top 100 American CEOs are women but what about the other 84? There’s a spoken willingness for change but in the workplace, there has not been enough action for change. We don’t see people as part of a family but as individuals who should be willing to do anything for their careers. Those companies that do see people as part of a family are the real winners and often the long-term success stories..
Recently, Sally Quinn wrote an article in the Washington Post debating whether Hillary Clinton will be the next vice presidential or presidential candidate? After working with Secretary Clinton for a number of years during her Presidential run. What do you think?
I honesty think Hillary will be anything she wants to be. She wants to do the terrific job that she’s doing as Secretary of State, now. Hillary has “shattered-glass” in ceilings not only for herself but for everyone around her. It’s certain that she supports the people around her. She helps them to help themselves. That’s the real success in the mentor model!
Judith Barnett is a trailblazer, accomplished attorney and business-woman. Her daughter is now a practicing attorney and mother. Judith served in the Clinton, Reagan and Carter Administrations. She is an accomplished corporate lawyer and litigator, law professor, writer and media expert. After serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, Judith began the Barnett Group. Specializing in the Middle East and North Africa, this international firm provides trade-consulting services to private sector companies and government agencies.