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It’s graduation season, with commencement celebrations and speeches and plenty of photo ops of proud students. Milestones like these are important—a way to acknowledge a significant ending and a beginning of a new chapter—and I’ve been delighted to learn that many new grads are being gifted with a copy of my book, Climbing the Spiral Staircase. Those students who have attended classes virtually and in person for the past few years have certainly absorbed important lessons in resilience and adaptability.
But I’m concerned that there is something that their educational experience may not have equipped them for, and that is the gaps that exist between the educational environment they are leaving and the workplace environment they are entering. These are gender gaps, visible in terms of wages, opportunity, aspiration, and leadership roles. Graduates, regardless of where they position themselves on the gender spectrum, need to be prepared to navigate them.
For several decades, women have outnumbered men on U.S. college campuses. The Wall Street Journal reports that women made up 59.5% of all U.S. college students last year, a record high. Women are more likely to graduate high school, to enroll in a four-year college, and to complete college after enrolling. On the campus and in the classroom, women are visible as professors, as department chairs, and as deans.
That’s why it can come as a significant shock when female graduates enter the workplace, only to discover that they are encountering gender bias in ways that they had never anticipated. I work with many women who are dismayed to bump into a very different reality in the corporate workplace than they experienced on the college campus.
Recent statistics show that women make up approximately 46.6% of the U.S. workforce. Let’s contrast that with 1999, when 60% of working-age women in the U.S. were employed. But it’s critical to dig a bit deeper and study what women encounter in the workplace. A distinct and ongoing wage gap. Underrepresentation in fields with high earning potential, such as technology and engineering. Women make up 38% of managerial roles, but only 17-20% of senior leadership roles.
There is a “broken rung” when it comes to promoting women, and the challenge of navigating that first step up the ladder to manager, and every step that follows, means that women cannot easily move into the C-suite. The challenges are even more striking for women of color, who account for only 4% of C-suite leaders. LGBTQ+ women are more underrepresented than women generally in America’s largest corporations. Just four openly LGBTQ+ CEOs head these corporations, only one of whom is female and none of whom is trans.
I realize that this is a sober message for college graduates, and I don’t want to be the unwelcome voice of reason in the midst of the celebrations. But I’ve been surprised at how many young women begin their professional careers with confidence and clear aspirations and then lose them after only a few years.
I encourage new graduates to mind the gap. Be clear about your goals and your dreams. Know who you can be—your potential, your skills, and even your fears. I’m not sure that there’s a more important graduation gift that you can give yourself than a commitment to honor your aspirations. To know what matters to you. To clearly recognize your hopes for yourself and take responsibility to achieve them.
As you begin this new chapter, pledge to yourself not to forget who you are at this moment. Pledge to remember the goals that have propelled you forward. Use them as your north star. They will give you the confidence when things feel a bit shaky, and the strength to navigate the gap.