On joining the club
Senator Elizabeth Warren talks with Neil Swidey about what women can do for Washington.
FOR A POLITICIAN so identified with women’s empowerment, Elizabeth Warren sure has spent a lot of time hanging around male-dominated institutions. The first time she was offered a tenured position at Harvard Law School, only a handful of the tenured faculty members there were women. In recent years, a familiar scene from her leadership positions in financial oversight and consumer protection involved her upbraiding male CEOs of “too big to fail” banking behemoths. And when she joined the US Senate at the start of this year, men still held 80 of the 100 seats in that historically old men’s club.
> What do women bring to traditionally male-run institutions?
Their presence fundamentally changes the place. They bring an outsider’s perspective. We’ve seen the damage of groupthink, particularly on Wall Street. When everyone looks at a problem from the same point of view, we’re in trouble. The same thing is true in Washington.
> What message do you draw from the debate over Janet Yellen’s nomination to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve? Does it say something when the highly qualified longtime number-two person was not considered the obvious first choice to advance to the number-one slot?
Janet is very talented. I sent a letter with 20 other senators talking about her qualifications and urging the president to support her. Janet is well qualified, but it [was] a hard decision for the president to make.
> One of your biggest backers, Joyce Linehan, has come out strongly in favor of Marty Walsh to be the next mayor of Boston. Do you share her enthusiasm for him?
I think that Marty is terrific. And so is John [Connolly].
> Will you be endorsing one of them?
> How about for governor, where two of the declared candidates are women? Do you think Massachusetts would benefit from a female governor?
I’ve worked with Martha Coakley on consumer protection issues for many years. She’s been a terrific attorney general. But we’re very blessed in Massachusetts to have many good candidates in the race.
> So you won’t be backing a candidate in that race, either?
> A couple of years ago, I happened to be watching testimony on C-Span . . .
Boy, that tells me how exciting your life is.
> Ha! Anyway, you were head of the consumer protection agency, and during your testimony before a House subcommittee you got into a heated argument with the Republican chairman. The video went viral.
> Your critics called you a lightning rod. But not long ago I caught the testimony of your replacement, and Republicans were mortaring him as well. What should we make of that?
The big banks have lots of friends in Congress, and many of them are very resistant to change. So the director of this agency is a target for them.
> Yet why do you think their argument with your replacement didn’t escalate?
I hadn’t thought about it. But the main thing has passed. We have a confirmed director. The consumer agency is here to stay. That’s no longer an issue.
> When you were teaching, did you get a sense of what today’s world looks like to young women about to start their careers?
I saw young women who were incredibly talented but worried about how they would manage their professional and personal lives. But I also want to emphasize that I saw young men who were worried about that, too.
> Long before she wrote her book Lean In, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg told me that a few of the friends she met at Harvard Business School were toying with the idea of starting a company that hired only young mothers interested in working from 9 to 3, to make use of that vast underutilized talent pool. Is there anything you can do in the Senate to improve this constant work-life struggle?
I think we’re talking about bigger change over time.