Bonnie Hammer hedged.
One of the most powerful women in her field, when asked the inevitable question of whether women can have it all, Hammer said they can -- but not all at once.
Hammer, who leads the NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group, said being successful means being "willing to accept the fact that you won't always feel perfect."
The Westport resident spoke in front of a crowded Schine Auditorium at Sacred Heart University last week in the latest in a series of talks held by Linda McMahon, the former head of WWE and two-time Senate candidate who is also a major Sacred Heart donor. The series features conversations about the challenges facing women in corporate America.
Hammer said balancing her career and family life has been a constant challenge, and she has succeeded by be willing to learn, and to fail. "You have to be willing to work, trip, fall and pick yourself up again," she said.
Hammer's responsibilities include oversight of cable brands including USA, Syfy, E!, Bravo and more. She has been named to Fortune's list of "50 Most Powerful Women" and Vanity Fair's annual list of "Powers That Be."
She said she learned early to strive beyond tasks that she knew well. "You have to pay your dues and do anything someone asks, within reason," she said. "I always volunteered for things a step above what I knew how to do."
Hammer and McMahon have a relationship that dates to the 1990s when McMahon's company, then known as WWF, first aired its flagship cable program on USA. "WWE was the most fun I've had," Hammer said.
McMahon, a Greenwich resident, and Hammer each talked about the dearth of women in corporate boardrooms, and how progress is difficult when executives only hire people who remind them of themselves.
"In the boardroom world, there seems to be a need to hire men like all the other men on the board," Hammer said. "It can be difficult to make your voice heard. You don't want to be a contrarian, but you need to know that you come from a different perspective."
She said diversity is essential. "We have to populate the boardroom with more women, and it takes a conscious effort to be comfortable in your own self."
She said she has made an effort to promote women, and seven of the 12 people who report to her directly are women. "Women often prioritize better, often because they have more responsibilities at home," she said.
One key to balancing work and family, she said, is having help. "You have to have a relationship that allows you freedom," she said. "My husband has been a true partner, and there is true give and take."
Hammer also talked about what she said were specific ways that women can hold themselves back from career advancement. "Women are often more afraid of making a mistake. I don't know where that comes from," she said. "Men give themselves a little more freedom to not be perfect all the time. Women judge themselves more and are more susceptible to other people's opinions."
McMahon said failure is part of the learning process. "Experience is a great teacher, and not making the same mistake twice," she said. "You can't be afraid to fail."