Paula Kerger, President and CEO, PBS Remarks at 2011 Gracie Awards


Paula Kerger Speaking at the 2011 Gracie Awards 36th Annual Gracie Awards

Paula Kerger, President and CEO, PBS

Thank you, and good afternoon.  I’m so very happy to be here.

I want to thank the Alliance for Women in Media for inviting me to join you today, and I want to congratulate each of this year’s Gracie Award finalists.  It’s a privilege to be in the company of such a distinguished group.

Since we’re giving out Gracie Awards, I wanted to talk a little bit about Gracie Allen herself.

Gracie Allen earned her star on the Hollywood walk of fame as the zany partner and comic foil of husband George Burns.

When they first started their vaudeville act George was the one cracking all the jokes.

But he quickly realized his wife was the one who could really get the laughs.

I could spend all day telling funny Gracie Allen stories.

But since we’re here to celebrate women and leadership, let me just talk briefly about the time Gracie Allen ran for president.

George and Gracie had already enjoyed many years of radio success when, in March of 1940, Gracie announced her intention to compete for the presidency as the head of a new third party, the “Surprise Party.”

Why the Surprise Party? As Gracie explained, her mother was a Democrat, her father a Republican, and Gracie had been born a Surprise.

Gracie is probably the only candidate in history to encourage the American people to take pride in our national debt, boasting that “it’s the biggest in the world.”

Asked if she would recognize Russia, Gracie showed uncharacteristic hesitation: “I don’t know. I meet so many people….”

In May of 1940, Gracie embarked on a whistle-stop tour that traveled from Hollywood, California to Omaha, Nebraska.

She was met by 8,000 cheering delegates, who unanimously nominated Gracie Allen for president of the United States.

There was no vice-presidential candidate, however; Gracie had warned all along that she would tolerate no vice in her administration.

On election day in November, Franklin D. Roosevelt collected 27 million votes.  Gracie Allen received a few thousand write-in votes, and her campaign for president became a mere footnote in history.

Although her candidacy wasn’t serious, Gracie Allen’s intelligence and wit helped inspire the next generation of women- like my hero growing up- Lucille Ball.

This afternoon, I want to take a few moments to share with you some of my thoughts on the role of women in the media – and why I think it’s more important than ever to shatter the glass ceiling that has held back so many of us back.

I also want to talk a little bit about the special role that public broadcasting plays in helping to move women forward not only in media, but in society as a whole.

And then I have a special challenge for each of you.

I’ll begin with a few personal perspectives.

While I have spent most of my career in public broadcasting, my experience with this medium goes back to my childhood.

My grandfather helped found a public radio station in my hometown of Baltimore, and so public broadcasting has been part of my life from the beginning.

I heard my first opera on public radio.

I saw my first ballet on public television.

“The Forsyte Saga,” “I, Claudius” and “Brideshead Revisited” were part of my life before they became part of my job.

And from the very beginning – from its founding in 1969 – PBS has strived to use the power of television to present positive images of women and minorities.

Our history includes icons such as:

… Julia Child …

… The heroines of “Upstairs Downstairs” …

… Maria on “Sesame Street” …

… And Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Judy Woodruff of “The NewsHour.”

It’s a tradition that continues today.

In addition to her role as senior correspondent on the NewsHour, Gwen Ifill, hosts “Washington Week, and has had the distinct honor of twice hosting the Vice Presidential debates. 

We also have the only program on television devoted entirely to public affairs from a woman’s point of view: “To the Contrary,” hosted by Bonnie Erbe.

And we’re the home to smart women like Margaret Warner, a senior correspondent on the NewsHour, Alison Stewart, the co-anchor of Need to Know, and Susie Gharib, anchor and executive vice president of the Nightly Business Report.

PBS is also home to “WordGirl,” a super heroine who uses her extensive vocabulary to fight the bad guys. 

From the moment we went on the air, our prime time schedule has included programs that highlight the significant role of women in the history of the world.

One of my favorite examples is the extraordinary film by Ken Burns “Not for Ourselves Alone,” which told the story of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Seneca Falls Convention.

Women also play an important role behind the scenes in public television:

I’m talking, of course, about women like Joan Ganz Cooney, who began her career in media as a reporter at the Arizona Republic, where she was assigned to the so-called women’s page – remember those? – writing wedding stories and covering cocktail parties.

Joan went on to create and produce “Sesame Street,” sparking a revolution in public television, giving children a new way to learn and inspiring other women across the country – present company included.

I’m also talking about women like Paula Aspell, who – in the early 1970s – went to work as a typist at WGBH, the PBS station in Boston.  She rose through the ranks and today serves as the senior executive producer of “Nova,” PBS’s Peabody-award winning science series.

Who says girls aren’t good at science?

And I’m talking about women like Rebecca Eaton, who has been executive producer of two of PBS’s best-loved drama series – MASTERPIECE and MYSTERY – for the past 25 years.

During this time, Rebecca’s shows have won …

31 prime-time Emmy Awards, 8 International Emmys, and 15 Peabody Awards, including her most recent Peabody that she picked up in New York this week.

In 2003 her career was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II—who awarded Rebecca with an honorary OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire).

Rebecca is a powerhouse – not just in public television, but in all of television.

In fact, this year Rebecca was recognized by TIME magazine as one the 100 most influential people in the world.

On a personal and a professional level, I am extraordinarily proud to serve as the second woman president in PBS’s history, and I am delighted that so many of my colleagues on the PBS executive team are women, including our chief financial officer, our general counsel and senior vice presidents for programming services and promotion and brand management. 

More than 1/3 of the PBS Board of Directors are women.

And across public broadcasting, there are women in leadership positions.

Margaret Drain is the head of Programming at WGBH, and Raney Aaronson is the series senior producer for PBS' flagship public affairs documentary series FRONTLINE.

It’s been my honor to work closely with Patricia Harrison, President of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Joyce Slocum, the interim president and CEO of NPR.

Unfortunately, women in leadership roles in media are the exception, not the norm.

The seminal study on this subject by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found women comprised just 15% of executive leaders and just 12% of board members in top communications companies.

Of these women executives in media, fewer than 70 – or 5% of the total – had so-called “clout titles,” such as chairman, chief executive officer, vice chairman, president or executive vice president.

The study looked at the 57 communications companies in the Fortune 500 and found that seven had no women in executive positions at all.

This is incredible.

These are some of the biggest corporations in the world, after all.

Compared to the media, women have made progress in other professions.

The gender gap in the number of physicians is narrowing.  According to
data from the American Medical Association, women made up 26.6% of the physician population in 2004, compared to only 7.6% in 1970. 

And the proportion of women in medicine will continue to increase in future years.  In the last year of available data, female students made up 59% of first-year medical students.

Women now make up about 37 per cent of the student body at traditional full-time MBA programs in the US, compared with 30 per cent 10 years ago.

Women are almost half of all law students,

And for the first time ever, this year the census bureau announced that American women now earn more advanced degrees than men.  Among employed Americans 25 years and older, 37 percent of women obtained at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 35 percent men.

It’s really unfortunate that the media industry is lagging behind other industries when it comes to closing the gender gap, considering how the media has never been more influential in our culture.

It has infiltrated virtually every aspect of our life …

… From the TVs in our living rooms to the computers in our office …

… From the video screens on our cell phones to the video screens at gasoline pumps …

… From the professionally-produced programs in prime time to the amateur videos on YouTube …

… From the friends we meet in the real world to the friends we meet online.

As a society, we’ve never been more …

… Plugged in …

… Tuned in …

… Turned on …

… Or powered up.

As the Annenberg study noted, “The news, movies, television shows, Web sites, papers, advertisements, books and magazines that we watch and read not only tell us about the events of the day through their content, but also tell us about our world in the way that content is presented.  Communications companies therefore play an especially important role, and the people who make decisions about what kinds of news, information and entertainment get produced have additional power.”

In other words: If everyone is using media, shouldn’t media reflect everyone?

I say yes, and I’m sure you do, too.

The question is: How do we reverse the trends outlined in the Annenberg study?

How do we get to a place where the top leadership positions held by women at media companies is closer to 50% and not 15%?

How do we get to a place where it isn’t rare to have a woman moderator on a public affairs TV program?

How do we get to a place where there are just as many heroines in prime time as there are heroes?

I think it starts with each of us.

I think we must be willing to raise our voices a little more, to get a little more involved, to make our views a little more known.

When we see images in media that reinforce negative stereotypes – whether it’s on a TV show, a news report or an advertisement – we, as leaders in this honorable field, should say no – this is not acceptable.  Our daughters and sisters deserve better.

Geena Davis did just that.

Geena was watching TV with her daughter, and thought that women weren’t being portrayed fairly in children’s media.

But rather than just accept what she knew to be inappropriate images, Geena decided to do something about it and started by collecting hard data.

She raised money to conduct a study that confirmed her suspicions.

Her research was the largest study ever done on G-rated movies and television shows made for kids 11 and under. And the results were stunning.
In G-rated movies, for every one female character, there are three male characters.

Of the female characters that existed, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized.

Female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.

So what did she do with this research?

She started a foundation, and has set to work educating studio heads, producers, and writers.

I’m proud to be working with Geena on ITVS’s Women and Girls Lead Project, which is a three year initiative which will spotlight women and girls around the world and start a real dialogue about the role of women in our society today. 

Using the power of media, Women and Girls Lead brings to life the stories of extraordinary people captured by the world’s best independent documentary filmmakers.

Combining independent documentary film, television, new media, and global outreach partnerships, Women and Girls Lead amplifies the voices of women and girls acting as leaders, expands understanding of gender equity, and engages an international network of citizens and organizations to act locally and reach out globally.

This comprehensive project will include community engagement projects tied in with a number of documentary films, anchored by three larger series: Kind Hearted Woman, Women, War & Peace, and Half the Sky. 

And Dyllan McGhee is launching the Makers Project this fall with a major web campaign on and that will present and collect oral histories with ground breakers over the course of a year leading up to the broadcast of a multi-part documentary in the fall of 2012.

We hope that the Makers Project will be the Eyes on the Prize of the Women's Movement- a comprehensive film of record about all the major events of the struggle for equality for women.

But this is not enough.

As women managers and leaders, in the workplace and in our volunteer pursuits, we need to mentor and encourage the next generation.  It is not enough for those of us who have broken through the glass ceiling.  We need to work just as hard to ensure that there is a steady stream of women following along.  And those woman need to be supported. 

When I was in college, there were very few women in my business school classes.  Like many in this room, I am certain, I was told by a professor – in front of my whole class – that I was wasting his time as I was clearly only in business school to find a husband.  When I tell this story now, some young women look at me with wide eyes – which makes me feel profoundly old, by the way. 

Sadly, vestiges of this point of view still exist, although not always as blatantly as the comments of my college professor.  Those of us who have risen into leadership positions need to take our fates into our own hands. 

I am reminded of the famous quote from historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

And how true that quote is.

So my challenge for each of you today is to keep us all moving forward.

Certainly we have made tremendous progress since the days when the idea of a woman running for President was a big joke.

From Oprah, to Hillary Clinton, and Angela Merkel, the President of Germany to Irene Rosenfeld, the CEO of Kraft Foods, women have made great strides in breaking through the glass ceiling.

But even though the progress we have made is undeniable, we still have a long way to go.

And so as much as I honor the work that public television has done to project positive images of women and girls, I pledge to you there is even more that we can do for all women, and especially for women of color.  I encourage you to join me in working to ensure all media portray women accurately and aspirationally.

Our daughters (and sons) are counting on us. 

Thank you.

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