Elizabeth Dole: Smashing the Glass Ceiling

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AS weary Midwesterners sloshed through flood waters last month, few expected to bump into one of Washington's leading advocates for gender equality. But Elizabeth Hanford Dole threw on her bluejeans and rubber boots, hopped on a plane, and helped volunteers fill sandbags.

Through her long career in public service, she has learned how to buck strong currents.

"I'm proactive," she said in a recent Monitor interview. "I'm not the kind of person who's there to be a seat warmer. I like to find the challenging issues where you can really make a positive difference."

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As president of the American Red Cross, Mrs. Dole has inherited control of the largest humanitarian organization in the United States, a behemoth that commands 22,000 workers and more than 1 million volunteers, and that spends more money each year ($1.5 billion) than the state of South Dakota.

Dole has spent most of her two-year tenure raising money and coordinating Red Cross responses to a record number of natural disasters. But she has also taken some preliminary steps to move the venerable institution toward a more efficient, more activist role.

In her Washington office, Dole discussed her decision to leave a Bush administration Cabinet post at the Department of Labor to take a job first held by Clara Barton in 1881. "The Red Cross's mission is meeting dire human needs on a full-time basis," she says. "It's what we do day in and day out. That was something I found almost irresistible."

Focusing on her favorite causes (safety, diversity, and at-risk youths), Dole has begun to shake out the carpets in an organization that has not seen major reform in half a century. Her initiatives include updating the Red Cross's blood-testing system, standardizing its disaster-mobilization apparatus, expanding safety-training classes, setting up preventive programs for underprivileged youths in urban and rural areas, and making disaster relief teams more culturally sensitive. Providing opportunity

Borrowing from similar initiatives she pioneered as secretary of transportation and secretary of labor, Dole has launched an effort at the Red Cross to pull more women and minorities into top managerial positions.

"There's been a tidal wave of qualified women coming into the work force over the span of my career," Dole says. "For those qualified women in middle-management positions, it's a matter of giving them the rotational assignments, making sure they're in the developmental programs, the training programs, and the reward structures that are the indicia of upward mobility."

One of Dole's favorite tactics is to provide opportunities for up-and-coming public servants. She staffs her offices with female and minority interns. And 20 years ago, she co-founded a nonpartisan organization called Executive Women in Government, a network for women who work - or aspire to work - in Washington.

"A lot of women have been in the pipeline, learning and gaining experience. I think we're going to see a lot of women going into top positions in the coming years," she says, "and we'll keep trying to smash the glass ceiling so they can move right up."

Dole has served six presidents and earned widespread respect in a variety of federal posts. A 1989 Gallup poll named her one of the "10 most admired women in the world," and earlier this year, she received the Radcliffe College Alumnae Association Medal for her "outstanding contribution to the community of women."

"Over the ages, we women have perfected to a high art form this trait of second-guessing ourselves," Dole told an audience at Radcliffe. "Perhaps it stems from our early and constant exposure to society's message that female traits and talents are inferior, but we have to get over it." Dole argued that being "women in a world of men" is not an obstacle to advancement but rather "an enormous opportunity."

According to Dole, largely through their experiences in grass-roots and volunteer organizations, women have learned to be sensitive to people's concerns and to work toward building consensus rather than solving problems dictatorially.

"In the female style of management, there's more of an emphasis on negotiation and mediation," she says. "I don't think women give themselves enough credit for the skills they've developed."

With her Southern graciousness and informal style, Dole has earned a reputation for being able to disarm her detractors. But in 1987, she found herself at odds with many women's groups when she resigned from the Department of Transportation to support her husband - Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas - in his presidential bid. At the Radcliffe ceremony, she admonished: "We must not move from one inhibiting dogma to another, from insisting women stay at home to making them feel guilty if they do. Women must al low ourselves, and each other, the freedom to choose." Move out of government

Perhaps the most significant choice of Dole's career has been to leave government service after 25 years. The move marked her departure from a pattern of political involvement that began with her election to president of the women's student body at Duke University.

Three years after her graduation from Harvard Law School, Dole was appointed to President Johnson's consumer office, where she remained through the Nixon administration. Dole later caught the attention of Ronald Reagan, who tapped her to play a key role in his presidential transition team, and later to serve as secretary of transportation.

Some Washington insiders say Dole's decision to leave the Department of Labor reflected her frustration at the slow progress of her initiatives. Others speculate her acute sensitivity to bad publicity drove her into an organization less prone to media scrutiny.

Yet her record is peppered with triumphs: the privatization of government properties, the proliferation of stricter auto-safety laws, firmer enforcement of occupational-safety standards, and increased public awareness of the restrictive promotional structures that keep women and minorities from major roles in agencies and corporations.

In a reflective moment, Dole offers an insight that perhaps captures the essence of her own experience: "Some women ... believe that concepts such as power and ambition are inconsistent with the mission of guiding their steps and their conscience. Over the years though, women have come to realize that power is a positive force if it's used for positive purposes."

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