An Interview with Pat Mitchell: Media Pioneer, Women’s Advocate, Working Daughter

As part of this year’s Simmons Leadership Conference, I had the opportunity to meet, over Zoom of course, with one of the keynote speakers, Pat Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell is a pioneer in the media industry and a force of nature in the movement to amplify women’s voices. A former news anchor, White House correspondent, and talk show host, she was the first woman president and CEO of PBS, CNN Productions, and The Paley Center for Media. Today, she is  the editorial director of TEDWomen and chairs both the Sundance Institute and the Women’s Media Center. She is also a former working daughter.

Prior to meeting with Ms. Mitchell, I read her book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World, which was published last October. There were several takeaways I felt were relevant to working daughters who are balancing eldercare and career, so I asked her if she could expand on them.

WD I’d love for you to talk about how your message of being braver and bolder can apply to caregivers.

PM I do feel that for this particular community the concept of being braver and bolder must feel a bit irrelevant in some ways because they get up every day having to be brave and having to face decision-making that’s often about life and death. I can identify with this group because I had an elderly mother who had Alzheimer’s. I lived thousands of miles away and there was no way she was going to leave her little, small town in south Georgia and she wouldn’t live with my brother and we went through all of the things that caregivers go through – how do you provide the best care? And, I had a full-time CEO job, so I was flying home to Georgia as often as I could and trying to make that time count. It was not a time that left me free of guilt.  I think the hardest thing for all of us, women in particular, we always have extra guilt – it’s a part of everything we do.

So I understand that feeling of getting up and knowing that you’ve got so many different sets of responsibilities — to show up at work as your full, totally engaged self and then to turn around and be a caregiver with the same kind of engagement. I personally never felt I found the right balance and certainly I wasn’t helped by the policies at a place that I ran. In many ways we are carrying personal responsibilities that are not in any way supported by the business that we work for or even the business that we lead. Although, I do think that more and more of these working daughters who are in leadership positions have opportunities to make that a priority.

 You overcome fear by believing there is more opportunity.

WD Are there any lessons you would share in hindsight?

PM (My mother) had a rather steep decline. Looking back on it, we think maybe we should have insisted she move in with us – there’s always that thing I found with parents  – you want to honor and respect them for what they want for their own lives. That decision… I remember a doctor trying to explain to me when does the time come for a caretaker when you realize you do have to make all the decisions, especially a parent who is used to making their own decisions. Where’s that point? It’s hard to know, especially with dementia. But I think it’s also hard to know with physical disabilities, but maybe it’s more obvious there.

WD Is there anything you would think about differently for the workplace, based on both your resume and your personal experience?

PM I am glad that I waged the battles that I did.  Certainly I was the first one to get women’s issues like this on television and discussed and that was a battle in the 1970s and 80s when no one thought women wanted programming about any of this. I do wish I had been braver in those early days about talking about the challenges of a single parent trying to manage a career, especially a career like television where you were also proving you could do every job every day. But none of us did.  We hid the pictures of our children. We never talked about our struggles because you just felt it was too fragile – the lifeline to that career.

WD You raise another parallel to working daughters. So often our experiences are fear-based because there is no schedule to eldercare. You don’t know when you’re going to get the call. You don’t know when you’re going to step out. And we see the data of how many women leave their jobs as a result of caregiving. We  see the data of how many women in their late 40s and 50s get rehired. Do you have any insight in retrospect on releasing that fear and working through it?

PM I don’t know about in retrospect, but I know when I look at the landscape now of who these women are, I believe that there are more opportunities for women in their late 40s and 50s. I am seeing it everywhere – (the opportunity to) go back into what they may think of as a more fully engaged career or opportunity. And the fear that that will not happen was in fact a reality for a long time; it rarely happened in the past. When I was 45, I was told look for another career. But now, I look around and there are women over 60 everywhere in television. There’s one over 60 running CBS News and that was unthinkable when I was in the middle of that. You overcome fear by believing there is more opportunity, if you are a bit more fear-less, as I like to say, and you just say there are opportunities and then pursue them. That’s the good part of what’s changed in most economies, most job sectors – not all – but it has changed because older women have proven that they are not only the best employees, but because women who have come from these positions of having cared for other people, having done all these balancing acts –  more and more businesses are seeing those as the skills they are.

WD Your touching on an aspect of your book that I absolutely loved – about midlife women being such a powerful community…

PM Potentially the most dangerous population on earth, to quote my friend Jane Fonda, actually, who said it first. She’s proven it, right? She’s proven you can be as active and as powerful in influence at any age. Now you know, Jane is Jane, but I see it all over the place. That is one thing that I am focusing more on now… I am blown away by women over 50. We’re all on the dangerous side of 50 because there is something about what we’re able to let go of — recognizing that many of your working daughters are probably in that age group where it’s easy to get stuck in society’s record of, ‘We’re starting to be less useful, less attractive.’ I just find that record doesn’t get stuck quite the same way. There are too many women breaking the stereotype; too many women doing different things and some of them going in completely different directions than they did before. I’ve met so many, like big powerhouses in financial firms who are now running small, community non-profits and have never been happier or are more engaged, or who have just changed careers entirely. It’s possible. And being focused on what’s possible beyond the caregiving, which is so all consuming, is really important.  Keep believing that there will be better times.”

WD I am glad you brought that up because I think it’s a powerful exercise  for working daughters to think about what they want after caregiving.

PM I think it’s very strategic. They have to care for themselves. It’s so hard to do because there are so many other people who have priority on that chain of caregiving but you can’t do it without (self-care).

Keep believing that there will be better times.

WD What are your thoughts on self-care as someone who ran companies and was a single mother?

PM We’re all built differently. Different things work for us and who knows where that all comes from, that combination of nurture and nature. I have just always felt best when I was busiest. The harder I work, the more I live. That is just  my DNA.  But I have also found that when I encounter women who have kind of checked out on themselves  – I’ve raised these beautiful children. I’ve taken care of my parents… They’ve done a lot of things but they don’t give themselves any credit for it. And, especially on that dangerous side of 50, women have already done a lot, experienced a lot, and know a lot ,and yet we tend to discard it and think it’s not important.

So the way I’ve kept myself going is by taking on new things, taking on new assignments. I didn’t do things like go learn languages  – I wish I had –  I’m not that disciplined.  But I took on new ideas, new organizations, things to keep my mind active, my life active. I really do feel it’s essential.  

WD Self-care isn’t just meditation and exercise and salad.

PM I’ll tell you another thing. I did this series at NBC when I was in my 40s and I was getting those suggestions about, ‘You should consider going off television. Find something else to do. Go behind the cameras,’ which I ended up doing. But I did this series on women who had lived 100 years or more. What I learned from those women –  every single one of them, without exception, who was healthy and happy, was doing work that mattered.

One of them said to me a woman’s life is seasonal and we can have it all, we’re just not going to have it all in one season. That really stuck with me because the couple of times I could not make the balance work as well as it should – when my son got into some teenage difficulties, he needed more of me and I was trying to do it without giving up my livelihood – I kept thinking about that. I kept thinking, ‘Okay, I am taking this pause that I never expected to take.’ It was scary because I wasn’t sure I could get back in. But I did because I pushed and pushed and I just tried a lot of different ways.

So I think that’s it – believing in our own ability to innovate, to comeback, and just see life in that way.

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4 comments on “An Interview with Pat Mitchell: Media Pioneer, Women’s Advocate, Working Daughter”

  1. Jan Reply

    I know for a fact women over 50 are actually more valuable than they are credited for! I am 64 and my 64 year old self has been a working daughter caring for both of my parents until their death. I have no regrets, but I sure have a lot more wisdom. If I could recommend anything to women in their 30’s and 40’s it would be for them to start their own business and build an amazing support team for their business and to begin preparations now for how caring for their parents will look and make a way to fund it !

  2. Diane Reply

    Terrific interview Liz. I admired Pat when she was here in Boston. Everything comes full circle if you live long enough.
    Well done!

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