There have been many firsts in my career: first woman attorney general of Arizona, first woman governor to win reelection in Arizona, first woman secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. And now I'm the first woman president of the University of California.

But I was a woman first.

The somewhat elusive topic of leadership and women raises several important questions. Do we subtly send messages to girls that they should not be leaders? Is leadership something that can be taught? And, fundamentally, what makes a leader?

I imagine many people have heard of the new movement to ban the word bossy. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Anna Maria Chavez, the CEO of the Girl Scouts, are leading the effort.

Sandberg says that when parents are tempted to describe their daughters as bossy, they should instead try saying, "My daughter has executive leadership skills." According to Sandberg, she has never heard anyone say that phrase without laughing.

Bossy is a pejorative word for girls, its usage just one example of how we steer women away from leadership. It is an unassailable fact that we have whole swaths of our economy where there are virtually no women.

Look at the conspicuous example of the Fortune 500, where only 4.6 percent of 500 CEOs are women. In law, just about 20 percent of named partners at firms are women. In politics, women hold 18 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives and 20 percent in the Senate. And on it goes.

Are these numbers so low because women are less qualified to lead? No. In part it's because we send messages that girls should not be leaders, they should not be bossy. Yes, there is good, old-fashioned male chauvinism in play, and yes, there is a glass ceiling. But it is also that girls absorb the message and then edit themselves out of the equation.

Believing is the first requirement of achieving. The second is that you get in the game.

The relatively small number of women in Congress does not mean that women can't win elections. It means that they do not run for elections. Because when women do run, they win. And they win in numbers similar to men when you factor in variables like incumbency. You can't win the prize if you don't enter the contest.

Now, you do need good teachers to help show you the way.

For example, I began my career as a lawyer in private practice. I was fortunate to have a great mentor, John Frank, who in 1966 represented Ernesto Miranda before the U.S. Supreme Court. If you're not familiar with the case, you have the right - no, the obligation - to remain silent.

Finding a good teacher, and soaking up as much knowledge as you can from him - or from her - is crucial. But again, that knowledge comes into play only if you get in the game.

Sometimes that takes luck, and also the preparation that is sometimes confused with luck. Sometimes it's not about shattering the glass ceiling, but about being in the right place at the right time.

That was how I made the jump from a law partnership to the federal government. When the Clinton administration came to Arizona to look for a new U.S. attorney, I was ready.

Later, I decided to run for public office. And surprising many wise pundits - wise guys, if you will - I became Arizona's first woman attorney general.

I was not alone. There are five statewide elected offices in Arizona. In the year I was elected, for the first time in state history, women won all five positions. The wise guys called us the "Fab Five."

Not long after, some magazine published an election feature with the headline "Weird things from the 1998 election." It cited Jesse Ventura - and the Fab Five.

A former wrestler in a feather boa becoming governor of a great Midwestern state was, I grant you, weird. But five candidates who happen to be women coming into office together - that's not weird. It's wonderful.

Women who assume a leadership position typically will be asked this question: As a woman, will you differ from your male predecessors?

My answer is always straightforward: For starters, I don't have a choice.

I do think that when you lead, what you pick as priorities tend to be shaped somewhat by your experiences. They are the aperture through which you see the world. This holds true for women and men.

In the final analysis, effective leadership depends on a few key pieces. Leaders must have a long-term vision. They must think bigger and persuade other people that they want to be part of this something bigger. They must also have a sense, operationally, of how to get it all done.

And then they must have the wisdom and patience to step back and let others do it.

All of the above is true if you are a man.

And all of the above is true if you are a woman.

Janet Napolitano is president of the University of California. This is an abridged version of remarks delivered by her on April 4 at the University of Pennsylvania upon receiving the Beacon Award from the Trustee Council of Penn Women.