Key Themes From 2018’s Surge Of Female Speakers At College Commencements

In my post “Female Parity (Finally!) at 2018 Commencement Podiums,” I presented data that demonstrates how women have been grossly underrepresented as college commencement speakers for decades. (This, despite the fact that since the 1980’s women have been awarded more bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees than their male counterparts.)

2018 was different. At the 25 richest schools, women made up the majority of commencement speakers for the first time – 60 percent to be exact. The first blogpost explored the possible explanations for the shift and raised the question: Was the female representation on this year’s campus podiums only a trendy moment for women—or will 2018 mark a gender equity turning point?

This blogpost extends the discussion and reviews the key themes addressed by the 2018 female speakers at the commencement podiums. Did we sufficiently inspire and influence the graduates so that the number of female speakers 2018 was not an aberration, but rather the beginning of a sustainable year-after-year trend?

No Shying Away from “Thorny” Issues

Given the unprecedented opportunity presented by the 2018 commencement season, I was intensely curious about the speeches delivered. My most pressing question? To what extent did this first wave of female graduation speakers rise to the occasion? Seeking an answer, I reviewed dozens of the female speakers’ video clips and transcripts. Not surprisingly, these commencement speeches were a mixed lot–both in content and delivery. I did find similarities, however, in the chosen speakers’ themes.

The Washington Post had predicted that “graduates can expect to hear speeches on equality, inclusivity and other topics that might have been seen as too thorny in the past”. True enough. Most speeches did, indeed, give voice to “thorny” issues. Speakers addressed race relations, sexual harassment, gender pay inequity, and numerous other divisive political topics. I have grouped these subjects into five overarching themes:

Women’s Key Themes at 2018 College Graduations:

Courage, Activism and Social Justice

Nearly all speakers called on the graduates to have courage.

  • Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, addressed the Worcester Polytechnic Institute graduates and encouraged them to understand the world “as (it) is, but always have the courage to fight for the world as it should be.”
  • Margot Lee Shetterly Commencement Speech Video
  • Oprah Winfrey was the commencement speaker at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. She encouraged the graduates to be advocates and activists “What are you willing to stand for?” she asked, “Pick a problem and do something about it.”
  • Oprah Winfrey Commencement Speech Video
  • University professor and attorney Anita Hill, commencement speaker at Wesleyan University, reminded the graduates that “courage is measured in how we live our lives.” Hill challenged them both to fight for a more just and inclusive society and to “stand up for what you believe in…otherwise the world becomes even more uncertain.”
  • Anita Hill Commencement Speech Video
  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, addressing the graduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted that technology serves all, not just a few – and that it “needs a human heartbeat.” Sandberg emphasized how the graduates are accountable to those who will use their technology for the social good. “Know your responsibility; ask not only could we, but should we?”
  • Sheryl Sandberg Commencement Speech Video
  • Former Xerox CEO and Chairwoman Ursula Burns encouraged the graduating class of Georgetown University McDonough School of Business to be activists using technology as a solution to help change the world: “Technologies are enabling all of you to create and affect change,” she said.
  • Ursula Burns Commencement Speech Video

Some speakers approached the theme of courage from a more personal perspective: Take action despite the threat of failure (whether real or perceived).

  • Dr. Vanessa Chan, in her address to Penn Engineering, shared how she found joy in her mistakes. She provided advice for managing failure, including “Don’t take yourself so damn seriously, and do not let a negative result define you. Rather, choose to be defined by how you muster strength to do something even better.”
  • Vanessa Chan Commencement Speech Video
  • Harvard College’s graduates selected author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the 2018 Class Day speaker. Ms. Adichie spoke not only about courage to tell the truth, but courage “to accept that life is messy.” Adichie said “Your life will not always perfectly match your ideology.”
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Commencement Speech Video
  • Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, in speaking to the graduates of Georgia Tech, urged students to be courageous and unafraid. She shared a question that has guided her since adolescence: “What would I do if I was not afraid to fail?” A thoughtful question for the graduates – and for all of us.
  • Keisha Lance Bottoms Commencement Speech Video

Inclusion in an Uncertain World

Many speeches stressed the importance of inclusion–a deliberate and determined approach to bridge the current atmosphere of divisiveness and tribalism. While some speakers spoke about inclusion with a narrower focus on diversity–racial, gender, and religious–others expanded the concept to encompass the broader idea of community. In both cases, speakers urged these key practices: talk to each other; listen to each other; get different perspectives to increase tolerance for competing ideas and beliefs; build shared purposes; and decrease the atmosphere of division and anger.

  • Activist, filmmaker and producer Ava Marie DuVernay, addressing the Cornell University class of 2018, rejected the word “diversity” because for her it feels emotionally disconnected. “Inclusion,” DuVernay suggested, evokes a more emotional response.
  • Ava DuVernay Commencement Speech Video
  • International human rights lawyer and advocate Amal Clooney presented the commencement speech at Vanderbilt University. Clooney noted that years ago neither women nor African Americans would have been in the Vanderbilt graduating class–setting the foundation for her message of inclusion and respect for all persons.
  • Amal Clooney Commencement Speech Video
  • Former Senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advised Yale University graduates that healing the divide will take “radical empathy–both personal and for the country.” Clinton’s advice? See others’ points of view; disagree without being disagreeable; be honorable; and engage in practical compromise.
  • Hillary Clinton Commencement Speech Video
  • Anita Hill encouraged the Wesleyan students to embrace community over division – “The only way forward is with an unwavering and boundless commitment to a more just and inclusive society,” Hill said.
  • Anita Hill Commencement Speech Video
  • Secretary of Education Betsy DeVoss, speaking at Ave Maria University, addressed the obligation of “service to neighbor” – with a focus on serving those “closest to home.”
  • Betsy DeVoss Commencement Speech Video
  • Ursula Burns called on the graduates of the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business to “work for others before yourself.”
  • Ursula Burns Commencement Speech Video
  • Soprano Renee Fleming advocated creating community by “mixing your voices with the voices of others.”
  • Renee Fleming Commencement Speech Video
  • Maine Senator Susan Collins noted we “live in an era of ever-worsening divisiveness” —challenging the graduates to combat this tribalism by helping “restore the sense of community.”
  • Susan Collins Commencement Speech Video

Be the Truth

  • At the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, Oprah Winfrey declared a war on cynicism. She challenged graduates to “be the truth” and “keep your word.” In related comments, Winfrey made an important distinction: “An action may be legal, but that does not make it moral.”
  • Oprah Winfrey Commencement Speech Video
  • Ms. Adichie cautioned Harvard graduates that “At no time has it felt as urgent as now that we must protect and value the truth.” As her speech evolved, Adichie transitioned from the broader, universal value of truth-telling to a more personal context—telling the truth to yourself. She called out “It is hard to tell ourselves the truth about our failures and fragilities” – reminding graduates of the courage required to “admit to the truth of what you do not know.” Adichie urged the audience to protect and value the truth, to listen to the other side–and not to let resistance to facts silence that important information.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Commencement Speech Video
  • Journalist Andrea Mitchell was the commencement speaker at the University of Pennsylvania. She approached the topic of truth in the context of “honest journalism.” Mitchell quoted the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said “You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.” (I wonder what Senator Moynihan would say about the current state of affairs…) Mitchell’s advice to the graduates: “Never stop learning how to find the truth.”
  • Andrea Mitchell Commencement Speech Video
  • Senator Collins found it troubling that the Oxford English Dictionary’s word-of-the-year for 2016 was “post-truth.” The OED defines the adjective as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The Senator proposed that a “shared respect for knowledge, experience and diverse viewpoints” is a first-line defense against post-truth tribalism.
  • Susan Collins Commencement Speech

Just Between Us Girls

Among the numerous female commencement speeches I reviewed, only two speakers directly addressed female graduates specifically:

  • Actor and director Mindy Kaling, addressing the co-ed Dartmouth College class of 2018, paused briefly for a message exclusive to female graduates:

“Hey girls! We need to do a better job of supporting each other… We live in a world where it seems like there’s only room for one of us at the table… So when another woman shows up, we think ‘She’s gonna take the one woman spot that was supposed to be mine.’ Wouldn’t it be better if we work together to dismantle a system that makes us feel like there’s limited room for us? Because when women work together, we can accomplish anything….”

Kaling is right.

  • Mindy Kahling Commencement Speech Video
  • Soccer champion, activist and Olympic gold medalist Abby Wambach spoke to the all-female graduating class at Barnard College. Like Mindy Kaling, she advised the women to champion rather than compete with each other: “Success for one is success for all. Her victory is your victory. Celebrate it,” Wambach said. At the same time, she encouraged the graduates to “Be grateful for what you have and demand what you deserve–the job, the promotion, the respect earned.” Exactly.
  • Abby Wambach Commencement Speech Video

Missed Opportunities

I must say that some of this year’s commencement speeches were disappointing. (Perhaps these speakers did not realize how poorly women have been represented—as measured by the dearth of female graduation speakers—for all these years?) At the risk of seeming unkind—and with no such intention—some speakers seemed to miss the great opportunity these commencement forums presented; others were “tone deaf” in addressing crucial issues. Among these disappointments:

  • In my opinion, actress, activist and NY gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon missed her opportunity at the Fuld School of Nursing commencement podium. Nixon began by acknowledging the important work performed by nurses – and then, to my ears, turned the commencement speech into a thinly disguised, political “stump speech”. (As a former nurse, I felt these newly graduated nursing students deserved a more personalized—and more relevant—message to launch them on their careers.)
  • Cynthia Nixon Commencement Speech Video
  • Author and career coach Nella Gray Barkley spoke at her alma mater, Sweet Briar College. Barkley offered remarks reflecting lessons learned during her distinguished business career. But the comments that eclipsed everything else included out-of-touch statements such as: “I have little patience with the woman who arrives breathlessly at her boss’s hotel room for a so-called conference. What did she think was going to happen?” Barkley told graduates, “It is only natural for men from Mars to follow the shortest skirt in the room.” (In follow-up comments and social media posts, Sweet Briar’s graduating class were none-too-pleased with the speaker’s sentiments.) Women are at fault for workplace sexual harassment? What?! Statements that downplay workplace harassment and sexual assault and also excuse the perpetrators are an insult to those brave persons who have shined a light on these despicable behaviors. Definitely not an appropriate message for any graduating class!
  • Nella Gray Barkley Commencement Speech Video

Compelling Calls to Action

Today’s turbulent times—when civil discourse is so hard to find, and the societal stakes are so high—prompted many commencement speakers to make urgent calls to action. One common theme was the graduates’ obligation to be involved citizens: vote, be engaged, get into the system and change it—including changing the media. “Make it about truth and not entertainment or profit-making,” one speaker said. “Be a participant and no longer simply an observer,” added another. Ms. Kaling’s challenge, in particular, was poignant and pointed: “Why not you?”

In capturing the zeitgeist of 2018’s crop of female commencement speakers, however, I felt Ms. Adichie’s remarks best summed up this group’s collective calls to action:

“The world is calling you. America is calling you.
There is work to be done.
There are tarnished things that need to shine again.
There are broken things that need to be made whole again.
You are in a position to do this.
You can do it. Be courageous. Tell the truth.
I wish you courage and I wish you well.”

So let’s continue the momentum and make sure that women consistently take their rightful places at commencement podiums – in 2019, and every year after that. Let’s make sure 2018 was not just a moment but a turning point in the march for gender equity. To that end….

When will graduates see YOU at the podium?

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Read my post: “Female Parity (Finally!) at 2018 Commencement Podiums

Christine Spadafor Commencement Speech

Note: I had the privilege of delivering the 50th commencement address at the college where I received my undergraduate degree. Although I gave this speech only a few years ago (2015) I am struck by how different my presentation (both in terms of content and tone) would be today!

Interested? View my La Roche College Commencement Speech.