Only a Gender Equity Moment? Or a Turning Point for Women?

By any standards, 2018 was a noteworthy year for women’s representation as college commencement speakers. At America’s 25 richest colleges—schools with the prestige and resources to attract the most high-profile speakers—women delivered 60 percent of the 2018 commencement addresses. This female majority at commencement podiums stands in stark contrast to the pervasive gender imbalance against women speakers at these prestigious schools. (You may have seen the Associated Press analysis showing that the average number of female commencement speakers at these institutions was only 25 percent over the past 19 years.)

During this two-decade comparison period, some years were especially dismal for women. 2007, for instance—when only two (8 percent!) of the 25 richest schools had female commencement speakers.

On viewing these historical statistics I thought about the remarkable women who shaped every field of endeavor—business, politics, medicine, science, engineering, academia, entertainment, technology, art, activism, and law—during the decades when these college committees consistently were favoring male speakers for their commencement events. I soon found myself wondering:

Why the continued gender disparity on these college commencement podiums?

On College Campuses, Women are the Longstanding Majority

The Associated Press analysis piqued my curiosity about other contextual factors that might shed light on this gender equity issue. My first goal was to learn more about the gender composition of student bodies—not just in the “Top 25” cohort studied by the Associated Press, but on all American colleges. Among my top-line findings:

  • Women have been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men have since 1982–and the percentage of women has increased every year since. (Stanford: The College Puzzle, May 28, 2013)
  • Women comprised 57% of the bachelor-degree students in the class of 2018. (U.S. Department of Education estimate)
  • Women have been receiving the greatest percentage of master’s degrees since 1987.
  • Women have been receiving the greatest percentage of doctorate degrees since 2007. (AEI: “Prediction – No 2017 graduation speaker will mention this – the growing ‘gender college degree gap’ favoring women,” May 7, 2017)

In every degree category, female graduates have been in the majority since the 1980’s. Nevertheless, the growing presence of women on campus failed to bring a “tipping point” for gender equity on the commencement podiums. On the contrary, the egregious gap in female commencement speakers persisted for more than three decades. Which led me to ask:

Why the Marked Shift Toward Female Commencement Speakers This Year?

What women had in 2018’s commencement season was a “glass ceiling moment”—one of those elusive, long-awaited chances to show our stuff in substantial numbers at numerous highly visible forums. Yes, it’s exciting that women (finally!) enjoyed parity at these prestigious college podiums—and that certainly gave reason to celebrate. However, there’s still so much work to be done—both in terms of understanding the decades of gender inequity on these podiums and in recognizing the factors that gave rise to the sea-change we witnessed this year. To this latter point:

  • Many people attribute 2018’s rise in female commencement presence to the #MeToo movement—it’s public successes and it’s increased visibility in organizations, on the streets, and in the media.
  • Some credit the influence of students —on those campuses where young people alert to gender disparities (discrimination?) have input on commencement speaker selections.
  • Others cite the growing public awareness of women’s issues in general.
  • Yet others have noted the surging influence of women in local, state and national political affairs.
  • And let’s not discount the role of alumnae, whose importance continues to expand—in financial clout, societal influence, and sheer numbers.

Women everywhere can disagree about which of these explanations offers the greatest “explanatory power” for the marked change we witnessed this year. Nevertheless, the continuing conversation is vital if we are to avoid simplistic answers—and continue analyzing these complex questions. Why? Because that’s how we learn—and because the lessons that arise from this success may prove invaluable in other gender-equity struggles (equal pay, board representation, and family leave—to name only a few.)

Remember, just because women were fairly represented on prestigious commencement podiums this year, that’s no guarantee that subsequent years will automatically bring equitable results. So let’s avoid any tendencies toward “magical thinking” here. Unless women want to be “taking this hill”—expending valuable advocacy resources—to fight the same battle year-after-year, we can’t afford to declare victory and abandon this cause. Instead, we all–men and women alike—must be a part of the ongoing solution.

How can you promote female representation on commencement podiums?

Contact your college dean, the institution’s board of trustees, and (specifically) the committee responsible for choosing its commencement speakers. Remind them that women historically have been denied equal representation on campus podiums—and stress the growing public sentiment for more women speakers. Even better: Provide these decision-makers with lists of talented (and relevant) female public speakers whose messages deserve a wider audience.

The majority of students earning Masters Degrees has been female since 1987.

A closing thought

Women’s 2018 commencement speeches were not “auditions”. As shown in the statistics above, women are the majority presence on college campuses—and we deserve equal representation on graduation podiums every year. So when colleges announce the 2019 commencement speakers in the months ahead, their selections will shed light on the next chapter of this story. I, for one, am watching for data points indicating whether we are making sustainable progress on this important front.

The question is straightforward: Will history show that 2018’s parity-at-the-podium was only an aberration, a hopeful moment? Or have America’s colleges–at long last–achieved the turning point women deserve?

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Interested in learning what female commencement speakers had to say this year? Read my post: “America’s Alpha Women Offer Advice For These Turbulent Times“.

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.