Don't just break the glass ceiling. Shatter it.

This week, I talked with my students about opportunities for women, why women face more challenges in building meaningful careers, and what we can all do to change that. Here’s a transcript of what I said in class.

I concluded last week by saying that women tend to struggle more with making plans for the future, with dreaming of something big. I’d like to address this specific point today. Allow me to share with you some information, statistics that show that on quite a few parameters women lag behind men just because they are women. First we have the obvious wage gap, where nationally and in Indiana women make less money then men: in Indiana women make 73 cents for every dollar a man makes just because they are women. Women also tend to be poorer than men, and even poorer when we look only at African-American or Latino women.

Wage Gap Map

Wage gap in the US, men vs. women

Indiana wage gap data

Wage gap data for Indiana

The situation does not improve if we consider child care. Here’s a table of the percentage of 4 year olds enrolled in state pre-Ks. It’s 0% in Indiana because Indiana simply does not have such a program (it does not fund pre-K programs, which are all run privately), but in 40 out 50 states less than half of the 4-year olds get preschool funded by the state.

State-payed pre-Ks

A list of percentage of 4-year olds attending state-sponsored pre-Ks per state in the US

I’m sure some of you probably think: what’s it to me? I’m only in college, I don’t have a 4-year old and I won’t have to worry about this any time soon. But I think that you should think about it because private pre-schools are expensive (they run anywhere from 7 to 20k a year), so many families can’t afford to send their children there, or can only send them there part time, which inevitably means one of the parents has to give up on his/her career. In too many cases, it would be the woman who gives up on her career, because the man is the primary breadwinner anyway, the one who makes more money.

Another area in which women are particularly disadvantaged is maternity leave. The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not have mandatory paid maternity.

Maternity leave, US vs. the World

This is how we compare to other countries in maternity leave

In that it lags behind many developing countries as well, and even behind ISIS (the Islamic State), which offers generous paid maternity leaves to its women. Although federal law does provide for three months of unpaid maternity leave, very few women take advantage of this. Why? First, because the law that provides for this leave has so many exceptions that in effect about 40% of parents in the US are not covered by it. And second, because most women (and their families) cannot afford to be without pay for 3 months, and they definitely cannot afford to pay their employer for their health insurance while they are away. Yes, you actually have to pay your employer for the right to take time off to have a baby. Makes sense, doesn’t it? The connection between having paid maternity and women’s ability to pursue ambitious careers and have families at the same time is quite evident. Whether you think states or countries should fund maternity leaves, the fact is that the lack of it puts women at a considerable disadvantage compared to men, and leaves many women who aren’t wealthy or high-middle class with the unfair choice of career vs. motherhood.

Now let’s look at access to reproductive health, or in general, health services for women. My favorite example is Planned Parenthood. This network of clinics has gotten poor rep for performing abortions, but actually abortions account for only 3% of what they do.

Planned Parenthood chart

Income and operations of Planned Parenthood: Abortions account for only 3% of what they do.

Each time a clinic is closed, women who are poor and on Medicaid – the majority of their clients – are deprived of life-saving services and the ability to plan when to have children, and therefore have less control over their overall health. In other words, the onslaught in recent years on clinics that allegedly or openly perform abortions has led, in many communities, to the deteriorating overall health of women. The connection between being healthy and successful is quite evident I think.

Even if you are not directly affected by everything I’ve mentioned so far, think carefully about the educational system in which you were raised: In typical classrooms, boys speak up more than girls. Teachers and school counselors – even women – encourage boys more than girls to participate, invest in schoolwork, apply to top colleges, and pursue meaningful, fulfilling careers. More than once I have talked to female students who were at the top of their class in high school and their advisers recommended they apply to that large state university, whereas guys from their high school who were not nearly as good were directed to private, elite universities out of state. And the trend continues in college and in real life: female students don’t participate as much as men do in class even if they are the majority. Any professor who teaches smaller classes than this one will tell you this right away. A recent study has found that in political gatherings, such as town hall meetings with candidates, women, even if they are the majority of participants, speak much less than men, and their questions get a far less detailed answer from the candidate than the men’s.

Personally, I have seen those male-female discrepancies in my work too. As many of you already know, I often talk to my students about their dreams and aspirations. I’ve discussed this issue with hundreds of students over the years, and the statistics are quite grim: of the students who indicated they knew what they wanted to do after college, men outnumbered women by a ratio of 5:1, and their plans were almost always more ambitious. My impression is that men tend to slightly overestimate their abilities, while women to considerably underestimate them.

This is the outcome of the structural inherent discrimination of women built into our society through institutions, and laws, and yes, religions too, almost always created by men. The good thing? We can change that. All of us, everyone sitting in this room, men and women. Just by being here you have been given a wonderful chance to make something of yourselves, to succeed beyond your imagination, to shatter, not just break, that glass ceiling and show the world that a woman who comes from a small town in Indiana or a mid-size Midwestern city can go to a top graduate school, has a shot in the greater world outside of this place, and can be not the person working for the lawyer or doctor or manager, but rather the lawyer, doctor, or manager.

You have to start believing, you need to be more ambitious about your dreams, and if you can’t do it on your own, ask for help, find the mentor who will take you there. It’s not going to be easy, because many of the women sitting here have been brought up to believe that getting that ordinary decent job after college is the best they can do because it’s better than what others in their family or community have done, that their ambitions can not extend beyond earning $30k or $40k a year and having a family. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way, if that’s honestly what you really want. But I would like to believe most women sitting here would want to do something greater than this (and still have a family), if given the chance.

Don’t wait for anyone to give you the chance. Take it. Fight our society’s structural inequalities that leave women behind. Choose the right major for you, have the right people on your side, do well in school, train yourselves in as many skills as possible, from writing to a foreign language and advanced proficiency with computers, apply to the best graduate programs and attend them, seek the best jobs, be socially and politically active, and vote for candidates who support women, regardless of their sex or political party. You don’t have to wait till you are finished with college to make a difference. In fact, there’s a burning issue that’s affecting every one of you – and men too – right now, on this campus, and on every other college campus in America.

Next week, I shall be discussing that burning issue that we all should be doing something about. Follow this page for more to come.


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