Former CEO of the Paley Center for Media and the first woman president and CEO of PBS, Pat Mitchell works to create and promote programs about women for women, using the media industry to form ideas and inspire action.
By Natalie Basta
Since leaving my last titled position—CEO of the Paley Center for Media—I am challenged to find the right way to introduce myself. I’m living a re-wired (not retired) life of passion and purpose, choosing projects that align with values of full equality of opportunities for all and fully realized rights everywhere.
What you do, in your own terms?
Most of my work is related to connecting and strengthening a global community of women. That includes mentoring women and girls, supporting other women activists, and curating and convening conferences and forums focused on transformative change leadership and women’s full empowerment. I create platforms for telling women’s stories, at TEDWomen and other conferences and gatherings. I also serve on a number of nonprofit boards (Chair of Sundance Institute, Women’s Media Center, Skoll Foundation and Fund board, Acumen Fund board, VDAY board of advisors, UN Women Civil Society Advisory Board, and the Congressional Commission to build an American Women’s History Museum in Washington).
Current project you’re working on:
All of the above, and I’m also preparing to host and curate TEDWomen 2018 on November 28th-30th in Palm Springs, California.
Do you have a favorite role or project you have been a part of?
I am fortunate enough to choose my projects based on my passions and values, and that makes everything I do feel aligned and equally important.
What inspired you to start the television series Woman to Woman?
Like nearly every media project I’ve initiated or supported, the need arose from a lack of representation, a void in the media landscape. In the early ’80s, there were no national talk programs focused on women, their personal stories, issues, challenges. There were programs that talked about women and to women, hosted by men, primarily, but there wasn’t a national series that talked with women.
That void led me and my partner, an experienced woman producer, to create and produce a daily one-hour series we named Woman to Woman. Every day, I talked with 12 to 15 women in an intimate setting about an issue or idea. We won the Emmy for Most Outstanding Talk/Service program series on television, and we are the first television series to be added to the archive at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women at Harvard University. The show was in national syndication, seen on Lifetime TV, and preceded Oprah, perhaps paving the way for her transformative television work.
Newspaper clipping for when Mitchell launched “Woman to Woman” talk show in 1983. Photo courtesy of Makers.
What is the achievement of yours that you are most proud of?
The recognition by the Women’s Media Center—an annual award established to call attention to the need for more women’s voices and women in decision-making positions in our media ecosystem—stands out as one I cherish, because I get to award another woman the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for work in media that empowers women and girls every year.
What challenges have you faced as a female in the media industry?
All the ones you would expect…from closed doors to opportunities in the beginning to proving myself at every job and position by working twice as hard for half the pay to criticisms about everything from wardrobe choices to hairstyles (never story selection, by the way!) to bad advice and the sexual harassment that was part of the workplace reality for my generation but hopefully will not be going forward. Time’s Up on that barrier to full potential and to enjoying a safe and equally rewarding work experience.
Have you found that the media industry has helped empower women?
Media is the single most powerful force in the world for shaping opinions, for forming ideas, and for inspiring action. The stories we see and hear—and especially those prioritized in our social newsfeeds—determine not only how we see the world but also how we see ourselves in it. The media stories we consume tell us what we can achieve (you can only be what you can see) and what’s possible for others.
Until there are more women making decisions at every media company, there will continue to be misrepresentations in the programming, a lack of diversity and inclusion—on and off camera—and more misinformation and alternative facts than truth can overcome. That is why I believe it’s imperative that we protect and promote independent, diverse media voices in every community to ensure that society is seeing the world as it really is, understanding the challenges and vulnerabilities that exist, and ultimately, being motivated to engage with solutions as informed citizens.
Mitchell and Leah Chase speak at TEDWomen, 2017. Photo courtesy of Stacie McChesney / TED
What issue in the world is most important to you right now?
Certainly, like all informed citizens, I consider the health of the planet a critical crisis, and, more recently, the dangers to all democratic, open societies everywhere as authoritarianism and repressive regimes are threatening the rights of all people and in particular the most vulnerable in every country and community—women and girls.
Have you always been passionate about female empowerment?
As long as I can remember being a girl and becoming a woman, yes.
What are you currently watching/reading/listening to?
NPR News, podcasts, documentaries on Netflix, and Grace and Frankie, to laugh about getting older.
When you’re not working, we can find you…
Hiking at Sundance, traveling with my husband and family, making plans with grandchildren.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given:
“‘Falling on your face can be a forward movement”—my grandmother.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever given:
The same—along with “Be a mentor.” Give what you always needed to get to another woman.
Mitchell receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Media Center in 2012. Photo courtesy of Pat Mitchell.
How is your work making a difference?
That’s for others to determine. I know that more than 150 TED Talks from TEDWomen on subjects ranging from nuclear disarmament to racial injustice are being viewed on ted.com by hundreds of millions of people in more than 100 countries. That kind of impact is out of reach for most projects or initiatives. But I can also point with pride to being a small part of a VDay project that has turned pain to power for more than 1,000 women victims of the violence in Eastern Congo who are being healed and prepared to lead their country out of war by a transformative center called City of Joy.
So while I don’t only measure impact by numbers, it feels good to see the results of our work knowing that the biggest difference I can make is doing something every day that supports, advocates for, promotes, and inspires another woman. That’s why I’m pleased to contribute these thoughts to Mission magazine.
What inspires you?
Everything women do that shows our resilience, our inner strengths, our resolve to make a positive difference in our communities and world.
Who is a Woman of Empowerment in your life?
Eve Ensler, for all the reasons that are clear when you go to VDay.org.
How are you a Woman of Empowerment?
My mission is:
Evident in my life choices and life’s work: To pursue my passions and to do everything with purpose.