Connecting Women for Greater Opportunities and Maximum Power

By Giving List Women   |   May 20, 2024

Pat Mitchell is a pioneering figure in the media industry, a dedicated advocate for women’s rights, and a firm believer that gender justice and environmental health go hand in hand.

As the first woman president of PBS and CNN Productions, Mitchell oversaw the production of documentaries and series that received 37 Emmy Awards, five Peabody Awards, and two Academy Award nominations. Her Emmy-winning TV talk show Woman to Woman was the first national program produced and hosted by a woman, and she personally received a Primetime Emmy Award in 1996 for Survivors of the Holocaust on TBS.

Mitchell is chair emerita of the Women’s Media Center; chaired the board of the Sundance Institute; and, in partnership with TED, launched TEDWomen in 2010. She continues to serve as TEDWomen’s editorial director, curator, and host. Among many honors, she has received the WICT Network Woman of the Year Award and the CINE Golden Eagle for Lifetime Achievement.

Mitchell’s impact has become increasingly global, as she continues to connect the stories and leadership potential of women around the world through projects like V-Day, a movement to end violence against women and girls; the WOW – Women of the World Festival in London; and the Connected Women Leaders initiative, which brings together women leaders in government and civil society. Among the initiative’s key ventures is Project Dandelion, a women-led global climate justice campaign.

Mitchell is the author of the 2019 memoir Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change
the World.

Giving List Women: You served as the [president and] CEO of PBS and of the Paley Center for Media when few women held such positions. Did that inform your choice to spend much of your life working to support women and girls?

Pat Mitchell: Growing up in the rural South, the expectations for girls were severely limited. I was almost always the first or only, as was any girl or woman who wished to break through those boundaries and expectations. That never felt right, and always [felt] lonely. So, the first commitment I made internally without recognizing it was to bring other women into those spaces with whatever influence I had.

Creating opportunities for women to tell their own stories and ideas was embedded in my work. That’s not altruism. That was the feeling that if I have this power or influence, I must use it to create another opportunity for another woman or elevate her accomplishments. And then moving from being a journalist to being an executive who got to hire people and make decisions about programming, I felt that as a woman of privilege and good fortune, it was my responsibility to bring more along.

GLW:Were you leading differently than the men with whom you were working?

PM: Absolutely. I believe all women do if they allow themselves to be in touch with their full selves. Women and men bring different skills to leadership. But often women leave them behind as they attempt to succeed on the same terms as the men they replace or who hire them. But if we don’t bring different skills and interests to the table, then the argument for having more equal leadership falls away. It’s the differences that make it imperative to have both women and men in leadership positions for the best, most balanced use of power.

If you look at transformative women leaders, they bring their full intuition, capacity, and interest in collaboration – their ability to build consensus. We come to positions with experiences that are part of being a woman. Part of being a mother, a wife, a partner.

GLW:Why did you decide there needed to be a TEDWomen?

PM:As a TED audience member for years, watching mostly man after man go on that stage and give a TED Talk about an idea, there were very few women. So, I asked [TED Curator] Chris Anderson, “How can you not be interested in the ideas of half of the world’s population?” He said, “I’d love to, but I can’t find them.” Well, that’s all you have to say to somebody who spends her life connecting women. I said, “I can find them.” And he said, “I’m looking for a rocket scientist for the next TED.” I found him 10 women without breaking a sweat – five of them women of color. So, I said, “Why don’t we try and create a TED platform featuring women giving TED Talks, and we’ll invite men, too?” We thought the first one would be the last. Then 1,700 people showed up on the coldest day of the year in D.C.

GLW:Women are not monolithic. But can our life experiences bring important leadership assets like collaboration and respectful discourse?

PM:You’ve just described the rules for our convenings with the Connected Women Leaders forums. We often have different political views. We certainly have different priorities and commitments. But in this room, we can collectively problem-solve, we can find consensus, we can lead. And out of that has come astonishing innovations including Project Dandelion, which grew out of a group of climate leaders and non-climate leaders saying this competition for resources is keeping the work siloed. We needed connective tissue over the silos to connect the women to each other in positive ways. And that’s been our work for the last 18 months – connecting frontline women leaders, across every sector of social justice issues, intersectional with the climate and nature crisis.

GLW:Project Dandelion is a good example of applying a female lens to a critical issue.

PM:When [former President of Ireland] Mary Robinson first came to me and said, “We have to make climate the key work of the Connected Women Leaders,” I said, “But gender equality must remain our top gender justice issue.” “Gender justice is climate justice, as is racial justice and digital rights justice,” she said. Getting out of that siloed mindset is why we decided to start a movement rather than another organization, which could be seen competitively. 

We started realizing how little people knew about the disproportionate negative impact of the climate crisis on women and girls. Education is disrupted, more girls are married off, reproductive health is seriously threatened. Eighty-four percent of those who’ve died from climate-related disasters are women and girls.

We have over 800 climate organization partners, and we elevate their work and tell their stories. Our message is, climate is everyone’s issue, just as gender is everyone’s lens on how we spend our money.

GLW:Would you say that Project Dandelion is one of the most impactful efforts of which you’ve been a part?

PM:I would say if we don’t get this one right, we won’t have a habitable planet. It’s the most important work that anyone can be involved in because we are at that crossroads where if we go this way, we’re looking at a catastrophic future. And if we go this way, we’re on the cusp of getting it right. And from what I’ve witnessed, we’re going to get it right if women are in leading positions. Because women are the ones carrying the innovations forward at the front lines. And when they’re in positions of influence, the evidence is clear that they have better environmental policies and certainly better gender and family-focused policies. That’s the premise of Project Dandelion. It’s integrated, intersectional work that speaks to a more just, peaceful, and prosperous world where men and women share power.