Nancy Pelosi | lawmaker

A woman in charge.

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Representing the congressional district of San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi last year became the first woman speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives—the highest-ranking woman in government. Known for her energy, passion, and ambition, Pelosi, 67, established herself as a Democratic leader in Congress by promoting women's health, stem cell research, workers' rights, and the expansion of educational opportunities. A native of Maryland, she grew up surrounded by strong leaders—namely, her father, a former mayor of Baltimore. U.S. News's Danielle Knight recently asked Pelosi about the challenges faced by women leaders. Excerpts:

I wasn't elected speaker because I'm a woman, but I believe women bring a unique perspective to leadership. Women work in a more collaborative fashion and bring a great respect for other voices and experiences. We understand that we each bring value to the debate and that allowing for a diversity of opinions leads to better results.

When I first came to Congress 20 years ago, there were only a small number of women—only two in the Senate and 11 in the House. Today, there are 16 women in the Senate and 74 in the House. Yet there are still too many days when I'm the only woman in the room. In business, there has been an adjustment to women moving up the ranks. Progress has been slower in Congress, but I believe my election broke the marble ceiling.

I'm dazzled by many of our young women members who are both raising families and pursuing their careers in politics. It's a balance we are all trying to achieve. What I tell all the new House members is that politics can be an insatiable beast and that they need to take the time for their family. That time away from the office and with your family renews you and makes you stronger at the job.

Having five children in six years, I had to be very task oriented. I was raising my children, but they were forging me. The time management and diplomatic skills required taught me about listening and using time wisely.

Criticism comes with high-profile careers. That's a fact of life, no matter your gender, so there's no use dwelling on it. And that's one of the keys to overcoming it. Have confidence. Value your experience. The best advice I ever received the first time I ran for office was, "Be yourself, and act upon it."