Like many families, we have a graduation coming up in June. My son's pre-K graduation. It's a big, bittersweet, but very welcome milestone. I love the "pomp and circumstance" of commencement ceremonies and I'm already looking forward to my kids' future graduations.
I also adore commencement addresses although I'm not counting on high-minded oratory for the big pre-K G-day. That won't matter to my son, who will probably forget all about pre-K graduation as soon as he hits elementary school. I, of course, can't remember anything that the then-president of my college alma mater said in his perfect Oxbridge accent at my graduation. (Perhaps it was all the champagne spraying through the air?) I can still recall, though, feeling inspired by his words to go out and conquer the world. Which, is, of course, what a great commencement speech is supposed to do.
On Monday, You Tube posted a list of its ten most viewed commencement speeches from mostly famous commencement speakers of recent vintage like President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs. (You can also find other commencement speech compilations here (CNBC), here (Huffington Post), and here (USA Today)). Today, I'm nominating another commencement speech for all the "top ten" lists - Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's May 17 commencement address to the graduates of Barnard College. (The link is to the embedded video and a full transcript on Barnard's website.) Sandberg, you may remember, is Facebook's "adult" and Working Mother magazine's Most Powerful Mom of the Year. And (who knew?) a strong feminist worth more than $400 million.
While it's probably too soon for Sandberg to score a " best of" spot, she pulled off a speech on women and leadership and family and careers that was funny, inspiring, and challenging. (The speech was actually a variation on a TED talk she did a few months back on the same theme.)
Sandberg's basic message to the Barnard graduates was this: The world needs women to run it, so think big, believe in yourself, don't let your fears overtake your desires, and then go out and do it!
I thought the speech was terrific although I didn't agree with everything Sandberg had to say. Still, it made me think harder than I've thought in a while about my own desires, fears, and life choices and my hopes for my children -- my boy and my girl.
First up, Sandberg's facts (bascially, men still rule the world):
In America, as in the entire developed world, we are equals under the law. But the promise of equality is not equality. As we sit here looking at this magnificent blue-robed class, we have to admit something that’s sad but true: men run the world. Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years. Nine years. Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.
Then, Sandberg's observation that my generation of college-educated women (I'm just a few years older than Sandberg) has not achieved true gender equality:
When my mother took her turn to sit in a gown at her graduation, she thought she only had two career options: nursing and teaching. She raised me and my sister to believe that we could do anything, and we believed her. But what is so sad . . . is that it’s very clear that my generation is not going to change this problem. Women became 50% of the college graduates in this country in 1981, 30 years ago. Thirty years is plenty of time for those graduates to have gotten to the top of their industries, but we are nowhere close to 50% of the jobs at the top. That means that when the big decisions are made, the decisions that affect all of our worlds, we do not have an equal voice at that table.
And the consequences for the world:
I truly believe that only when we get real equality in our governments, in our businesses, in our companies and our universities, will we start to solve this generation’s central moral problem, which is gender equality. We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.
Then, the "second shift," "work-life balance" and the importance of a true life partner:
If you think big, if you own your own success, if you lead, it won’t just have external costs, but it may cause you some personal sacrifice. Men make far fewer compromises than women to balance professional success and personal fulfillment. That’s because the majority of housework and childcare still falls to women. If a heterosexual couple work full time, the man will do—the woman, sorry—the woman will do two times the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare that her husband will do. From my mother’s generation to mine, we have made far more progress making the workforce even than we have making the home even, and the latter is hurting the former very dramatically. So it’s a bit counterintuitive, but the most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is. If you pick someone who’s willing to share the burdens and the joys of your personal life, you’re going to go further. A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world. (My emphasis.)
Next, Sandberg on "opting-out":
Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day. Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually. . . . And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back. The problem is, often they don’t even realize it. Everyone I know who has voluntarily left a child at home and come back to the workforce—and let’s face it, it’s not an option for most people. But for people in this audience, many of you are going to have this choice. Everyone who makes that choice will tell you the exact same thing: You’re only going to do it if your job is compelling.
If several years ago you stopped challenging yourself, you’re going to be bored. If you work for some guy who you used to sit next to, and really, he should be working for you, you’re going to feel undervalued, and you won’t come back. So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.
And, finally, the wrap up:
[I] hope that you - yes, you-each and every one of you hae the ambition to run the world because this world needs you to run it. Women all around the world are counting on you.
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So, what did you think of the speech? Did Sandberg's words resonate with you? Did they inspire you? Depress you? Did you think they were realistic? Or not realistic enough? What advice would you give to the women of the Class of 2011 about work, family, and marriage? Post a comment below!