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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

McClain, McMorris Rodgers, Wilkerson, Cantwell discuss women in leadership at Northwest Passages event

Sen. Maria Cantwell encouraged young women to seize the day and believe in their ability to lead.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers added that leading with love is important.

Astronaut Anne McClain said leaders need to prevent bias in their organization by surrounding themselves with the right people.

The three women shared insights and advice regarding their influential roles during the Northwest Passages Leadership Talks & Space Walks event Monday night held in conjunction with Bank of America to honor The Spokesman-Review’s Women of the Year, a group of women who are making communities in Eastern Washington and North Idaho better.

“You have good ideas and you can help our society to move forward in the future,” Cantwell said. “We’re counting on you.”

Spokane City Council member Betsy Wilkerson opened the panel by asking McMorris Rodgers how she balances her role as a legislator with motherhood.

“I contend that there needs to be more moms on Capitol Hill. That perspective is really important,” McMorris Rodgers said. “As a mom, I’m forever telling my kids you just keep loving, you keep giving hugs, you keep encouraging your friends and others at school. We need more encouragement.”

Wilkerson asked Cantwell how the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 will benefit women in the science sector.

“I think that the CHIPS and science bill is the story about the next phase of America and how we need more women in science,” Cantwell said. “Here we are today with shortages across every sector of the sciences, and we need more women.”

“You can’t have 50% of the society sitting it out,” Cantwell continued. “We need them to help us. So, the CHIPS and science bill specifies $45 million for universities, institutions to help increase the number of degrees for women in science.”

As a leader, preventing bias in an organization starts with paying attention to your inner circle, said Spokane native Lt. Col. McClain, a senior army aviator and astronaut who most recently served as flight engineer on the International Space Station for expeditions 58 and 59.

“In order to fight bias, we have these blind spots. The only way to find them is to surround ourselves with an inner circle that has a different bias,” she said. “They have different blind spots and then we have to trust those people when they tell us things.”

It’s also important for organizations to tackle bias through examining policies, she said.

“We have to unbias our organizations intentionally. It starts with selection and understanding that even just the way we put out a job description will change who applies to that position,” she said. “It’s been shown that if you select one person at a time, you’re more likely to not have diversity in your organization. But, if you batch your selection to select five people at a time, you’re more likely to seek out diversity.”

McMorris Rodgers said it’s exciting to see women nationwide reaching new heights. She recalled that her mother raised her to believe she could be anything she wanted to be and encouraged her to pursue a college education.

“I think it’s noteworthy and really something to celebrate how women are leading in every sector,” she said.

McClain said diversity is naturally occurring, so when there’s a lack of it in an organization, it usually means there’s a barrier somewhere.

“We think about this a lot in astronaut selection. If we cast the net and we only get one type of person applying, then there’s a problem with our net. There’s a problem with our selecting. There’s a barrier somewhere that we’re not seeing,” she said. “So, if you look at your organization and it lacks diversity, you can’t just shrug your shoulders. You have to go left and go, ‘Where is there a barrier that I’m not seeing?’ “

McClain said she had a “profound realization” in space that were she born just 10 years earlier, she may have not had the same career opportunities.

“I did have the opportunity to walk through these doors, but those doors were opened by other women that did not accept the status quo,” she said.

McClain added everyone has a responsibility to open those doors to underrepresented communities.

Cantwell said this year’s cohort of Women of the Year nominees addressed a need in the community – whether it was taking care of veterans or helping children in foster care.

“They saw the need and they went and answered it,” Cantwell said. “It’s great that they will step out and just step up, and resolve the problem.”