The former White House press secretary and her Emmy-winning friend on standing up for themselves, collaborating with men and the importance of over-preparation
This story is part of “Uninterrupted,” a series where female leaders – who also happen to be friends – talk to Moneyish about the issues that matter to them.
These women no longer feel so Outnumbered.
When George W. Bush appointed Dana Perino as his press secretary in 2007, she became the first woman to front a Republican White House and only the second female to ever hold the role. At the same time, six-time Emmy winner Harris Faulkner was entering her second year at Fox News, where she remains one of the few African-American female anchors on national television. So little wonder that when the two women met at a work dinner in 2011, they became fast friends.
Best known for her ongoing stint on the female-dominated “Outnumbered,” Faulkner and Perino now see each other a lot more often. Colleagues at Fox News, they began anchoring their respective new shows earlier this month: Faulkner’s “Outnumbered Overtime” leads in to Perino’s “Daily Briefing.” Their employer now has more women on air than any other network during waking hours, though both say that having the courage to speak out hasn’t always come naturally.
“I liken it to being a stiletto in a room full of flats,” says Faulkner, who notes that she’s sometimes felt tasked to deal with “black stories” as often the only African American in the room. “In one way, you feel your voice is sought after, but not for merit in the way you want.” That, she hastens to add, is slowly changing as the media world becomes more diverse.
That sense of not instinctively belonging also applies to Perino. “When Sheryl Sandberg wrote ‘Lean In,’ that was [for women like] me,” she tells Moneyish during a recent joint interview with Faulkner. “I’ve always been happy behind the scenes.” But it was often women that encouraged her to advocate for herself.
One defining moment came during a White House Situation Room meeting at the nadir of the Iraq War, when a cast of generals and senior diplomats were griping about their “communications problem.” Perino was trying to avoid the brouhaha when she caught the eye of Condoleezza Rice, then the Secretary of State. “She was saying with her eyes: ‘You better take your moment,’” she recalls.
That’s what prompted her to bluntly tell her colleagues that when 82 civilians died in a mass bombing, they had a “fact problem, not a communications problem.” “I’ve benefitted from having others tell me that if I have a seat at that table, then I’d better speak up,” Perino says. That said, she’s still relieved to have been press secretary when her daily briefings weren’t carried live. “Saturday Night Live never knew my name and believe me, that’s exactly how I wanted it,” she says.
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Even as they acknowledge the political and media arenas’ challenges with diversity and sexual harassment, both women also stress the important role men have to play. “The conversation on gender is getting clouded by a sense of us versus them, which is not my experience at all,” Perino says. Fox News is a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox, which shares common ownership with Moneyish parent Dow Jones.
Meanwhile, Faulkner credits her father, a military man who would bring his young daughter to hang out at the Pentagon at a time when women weren’t allowed in combat, for some of her success. When she decided as a teenager to make a career in news, he called up a San Francisco TV station and got her an audience with Barbara Rodgers, a veteran African American newscaster. “I had that structure which propelled me to where I could be part of the change and I’ve benefitted from that,” she says.
Being back at the @whitehouse press briefing room felt like returning home. Tune in this morning to @foxnewssunday to see my interview with White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – check your local listings to watch LIVE (link in bio) or watch it on @foxnews channel today at 2pm ET & 10pm ET #fns
The two women have channeled whatever doubts they’ve had into doubling down at work. Faulkner half-jokingly recalls using a spreadsheet to help potty train two of her children. “I grew up military but have met very few women that have a mission plan for when things don’t work out,” she says. “I attack everything like that.”
“I feel underprepared everywhere I go, which is probably why I’ve succeed—I always feel like I need to know more,” says Perino.
And over time, confidence naturally builds. “I come with six Emmys, you’re not doing me a favor,” says Faulkner when asked how she’s learned to fight for herself. “But I’m going to work harder, harder than most people you know, to make sure you make the right decision. That’s not a woman thing, that’s a work thing.”
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