“You are the hope of women to come.”

BWCC 2019 Keynote Speaker Ann CurryAnn Curry Reflects on Her Career and the Fight for Gender Equality 

When award-winning journalist Ann Curry was growing up, it was impossible for her to imagine a world in which a woman couldn’t support herself. Hers was a world that had changed forever with the passage of the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act, and she recalled thinking as a young woman that she and her peers would find themselves with access to opportunities that previous generations of women had never had.

“We did understand that we could dream of things that our mothers could not,” Curry said. “But who among us fully realized the challenges we would face?”

Curry, the executive producer and host of PBS’s documentary series We’ll Meet Again, gave the keynote address at the 2019 Booth Women Connect Conference. With warmth and humor, she shared stories from her childhood—learning resilience from dinner-table debates with her dad, and cherishing the unending love and support from her mom (sometimes delivered in the form of critical but well-intentioned hairstyling advice). She reflected on gender equality, the advances we’ve made, and the urgency of overcoming the hurdles that remain in the way of full opportunity for all.

Speaking to a sold-out crowd of 1,400 women business leaders and others, Curry noted just how much progress women have made on so many fronts—in corporate America, in politics, in the US military—and called for institutions to do even more to support women in the workplace.

“The question,” she said, “seems not to be if women will rise to be true partners with men, but when.” So when will that day come? Not soon enough. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, progress remains slow and the gap may not be closed for a century at least.

Citing that bleak statistic, Curry offered attendees a choice: “We could wait,” she said. “Or we could step on the gas together.”

“Fuel Your Rocket Ship”

She shared an anecdote about a time she “stepped on the gas” early in her own career, when she found herself face-to-face with a male news executive who was trying to discourage her from taking a job in his newsroom. He told her that women didn’t have news judgment and that she wouldn’t be able to carry the camera.

“While my mouth was saying, ‘Please just give me a chance. I’ll prove myself,’ in my head I was actually thinking, ‘Oh yeah? Watch me,’” Curry said.

When she joined that newsroom—which had never had a female reporter or a reporter of color before—her male colleagues shunned her and she was buried in work, assigned two or three times the number of stories the men were.

“It hurt to know they wanted me to fail,” Curry said. “They made it clear that they were worried that I wasn't going to hold up my end and that I was going to try to feminize the office, the way they did things. I thought about quitting. Instead, I learned to cuss.”

The lesson? “Every time someone diminishes you, you have a chance to fuel your rocket ship,” Curry emphasized.

Knowing she had to stand up for herself, Curry set some ground rules: she would work as hard as the men, but not harder. They agreed, and she got to work. By the time she left that newsroom years later, she had won over the doubters. Those same men who had opposed her at the outset had become respected colleagues and even dear friends. And that newsroom executive? He admitted he had been wrong—and went on to hire two other women journalists.

Think of the Next Generations

“This,” Curry continued, “is how we all have been paving the ground, for more than 50 years now: sometimes bit by grueling bit.”

In her most difficult moments, Curry said, she found the perseverance to keep going by thinking about all the women she was blazing a trail for. Even when she felt alone, she said, she wasn’t.

“I could almost hear them cheering support so that I might make a space for them,” Curry said. “And that is what helped me prove that women could have news judgment and that we can carry the camera.”

That feeling of a greater purpose, she said, gave her the courage to take on some incredibly difficult assignments: reporting from warzones, documenting poverty here in America, traveling to the poles to understand climate change, and asking hard questions of politicians. It fueled her, she said, to shine a light on the stories that truly matter.

Speaking to the assembled crowd of professionals, she offered some advice: “When you face your individual challenges in your profession, remember you are not alone. You are part of a wave, paving the way to the day when merit will be the only judge.

“You are the dream of women who came before you and the hope of women to come. They're coming up the hill behind you with our children and our grandchildren. And they are cheering along with our mothers,” she said. “I bet even mine.”

—LeeAnn Shelton

Curry spoke at Booth Women Connect Conference 2019, organized by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The event brought together more than 1,400 professionals for an extraordinary day of bold ideas, spirited discussion, practical insights, and impactful networking.