Executive Feature (Response #2): Shannon Fitzgerald

On Thursday evening Colgate Women in Business heard from Shannon Fitzgerald, the current Senior Vice President of Series Development for MTV. Ms. Fitzgerald spoke to us about her transformation from teenage runaway to executive, despite the struggle that she had to endure. She also mentioned that our generation faces huge obstacle in the way of achieving our dreams including the sheer number of fellow members of the millennial generation (80,000,000 to be precise). Today, one out of every two college grads are either unemployed or underemployed, three out of ten of us have to move back home because of money issues, and a quarter of all college students are on antidepressants or some other kind of psychiatric medication.

Despite these crippling figures, Ms. Fitzgerald insists that we are capable of succeeding by having a dream, acting on that dream, and being resilient when we fail. Ms. Fitzgerald ran away from home as a young teen, lived on the streets, and eventually followed her heart to London where she broke into the entertainment industry. During her first years in London she worked small jobs in order to feed herself and acquired the work ethic she swears got her to where she is today. Ms. Fitzgerald insists that we should learn from our failures, and see them as lessons. “What’s the worst that could happen,” she asks? When you get to where you want to be it won’t matter how long it took you to get there, or how difficult it was. She advises us to know who we are, to shut down the outside noise, and to get real about what it takes to be successful.

Ms. Fitzgerald’s speech was inspirational and encouraging, and she concluded with a question and answer session. One young woman in the audience asked Ms. Fitzgerald if during her career she had ever experienced discrimination as a woman, and Ms. Fitzgerald answered that she believes that one’s attitude creates one’s reality. She informed us that if women don’t act like they are inferior, they will be able to set their own boundaries and ignore the occasional roadblock. Fitzgerald notes that women today are graduating from college at higher rates than men, and that several top companies are embracing more flexible work schedules to adapt to employees’ childcare options. Overall, Ms. Fitzgerald feels that the workplace is beginning to shift towards gender equality albeit at a slower place than we want it to.

Following this, another young woman raised her hand and asked Ms. Fitzgerald what she thought of the documentary Miss Representation, a film that critiques the media’s portrayal of women. Ms. Fitzgerald answered that she agrees with the film that the media has a skewed representation of beauty ideals, and notes that women everywhere including her are pressured to emulate a certain unrealistic ideal. She blames the fashion industry primarily, and said that she is attempting to find more positive role models for women on TV.

Her desire to find good role models for young women is admirable, and is extremely necessary in a world where an unprecedented number of teen girls are developing eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia. Women’s salaries today are still on average at most 80% of what a man makes, and according to USA Today, female CEOs represent just 3% of Fortune 500 company heads as of October of 2011. Ms. Fitzgerald is in an unusual position of power in a starkly male-dominated field. She acknowledges the pressures that young women and girls face, and notes that something must be changed, however, towards the end of her talk I found myself wondering exactly what she is doing to combat the negative images that women are bombarded with every day. MTV provides very few positive role models through its television series, instead choosing to air shows that will appeal to an increasingly desensitized audience.

I agree with Ms. Fitzgerald that by working hard and by emulating a role model I can get closer to achieving my dreams. As the Vice President of Series Development for MTV, Ms. Fitzgerald should be fighting tooth and nail to give us the role models that she was so lucky to encounter as a young woman and get women like Snooki & JWOWW off TV.

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