Change the world

Since I’ve been in grad school, I haven’t had much time for blogging. Okay, I haven’t touched my blog.

But this quarter, I’m taking a class called Finding Your Voice. It’s about becoming a better speaker by being more authentic. Rather than writing blog posts, I’m sharing the speeches I give in class. Today in class, we were asked to give speeches about what we would change about the world and how we would deal with it. This is a transcript of my speech in response to that prompt. 

* * * * *

I’m going to show you two photos today.

This first one is an image of a single mom and her daughter. I share it because I want you to think for a moment about what associations come to mind when I say, “single mother.”

Vigdis with daughter - Edit

And I’ll tell you what comes to mind for me:

This photo reminds me of my own mom, because she was a single parent for most of my early childhood. She worked multiple jobs, bought a house by herself, and put herself through grad school in a part-time program. She did all of that while raising two young children.

I can actually remember a moment when she was in grad school and I was about 7 years old. I watched her open an envelope that had her final grade in a course. She opened it and shrieked—a little mom-shriek, like “ooop!”—and then put her hand over her mouth and tried to contain her smile. She was beaming for the rest of the day because she’d gotten an A-. It was a moment of pure joy for her.

Maybe I remember that moment because of how happy my mom was. This was a person who was always a little overworked and spread a little too thin; she was not often seen shrieking with joy.

As a grad student myself now, I think of that moment with awe. She was getting A’s while raising two humans. By contrast, I made the Dean’s List and all my houseplants died.

I have a lot of respect for single moms. And for me, the phrase “single mom” brings to mind a person who has a lot on her plate.

But I know I don’t speak for everyone.

In the U.S., we can be pretty hard on single mothers. The sociologist Charles Murray says that single mothers should not receive federal support like food stamps or welfare, because they need an incentive to get married to a man. And he says that single mothers are “rotten mothers.”

You’ll notice I didn’t tell you what he says about single fathers, and that’s because he doesn’t talk about single fathers. Charles Murray is an incendiary writer, but he has followers. He has had the ear of some very powerful, influential people in this country. I worry that Charles Murray speaks for a lot of people who share his disdain for single mothers.

So we have a situation where a man and a woman are doing the same job, but some people are carrying a baseless belief that the woman is somehow doing it poorly.

That is gender inequality. That is how we get the gender gap.

Now, you’re all MBA students, so you know what I mean about a gender gap. I won’t belabor the point, but I’ll highlight a few things that are pertinent in this room:

Nationally, only 34% of MBA graduates are women. Women enter MBA programs knowing they’ll be a minority.

And nationally, 57% of the professional workforce is female, but only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. We also know that women disproportionately self-select out of some professions, like computing—where women hold only 26% of jobs.

And of course, there’s the pay gap. The latest data from the Pew Research Trust indicate that American women make about 85% of what men make.

When we put this all together, we have a big problem. Gender inequality is a big problem, and it’s urgent.

You might say to yourself, “Of course, you think this is important; you’re a woman.” And you’re right! I am a woman.

But this isn’t just my problem, and it’s not just a problem for women. It’s a problem for everyone. And it’s personal for everyone in this room.

Because we know that more diverse teams are more innovative and have more creative solutions. It’s an urgent problem for all of humanity that there aren’t as many women working in the hard sciences, where a fresh set of eyes might be needed to find a solution to combat a chemical weapon attack–-like the one that just happened in Syria.

Because we know that corporate boards make better decisions when they have women. They make fewer acquisitions that erode shareholder value. Gender inequality is a problem for anyone in this room whose 401(k) is invested in companies that don’t have women on their boards.

And because we know that when there are women in corporate governance, the incidence of fraud and scandal drops. So if you plan to start a company, gender inequality is a pressing issue for you. You will need to build a team that will keep you out of prison.

This is personal for all of us.

And I’ll be honest, it feels really personal to me. When I think of gender inequality, sometimes it feels crushing. Like it’s just too big of a problem. Not big like an elephant sitting awkwardly in the room, that we can’t talk about. I mean big like Godzilla. Even if you shout at it, it still walks around, crushing the possibility of a better world.

But I don’t despair. I don’t lose hope.

Because as I think of all these ways we see the gender gap, I see that they all start with perception. They start with the flawed belief that there is some biological basis for women to earn less, participate less, or achieve less. And I know that we can change perception. We—MBA students—can do it, even starting today.

We can change this.

Today, I’m going to offer three tools for MBAs to tackle the problem of gender inequality. We can do these things right here in the MBA classroom, right here in this building.

The first tool is simply to open your mind.

We all have a bit of unconscious bias about women. Let’s be open-minded enough to accept that we don’t always get it right, and let’s be willing to listen when someone tells us that we’re doing something that propagates the gap.

The second tool is to open your ears.

Language is very powerful when it comes to keeping these perceptions in place. So I implore you to listen up. When you hear someone say that one of our classmates is acting bossy, challenge them. Ask, “Do you mean to say, she’s acting like a boss? Because that makes sense. I’m pretty sure she’s going to be a CFO someday.”

And the third tool is to open your eyes.

We are bombarded with images that tell us what women look like, what leaders and scientists look like, and doctors, and engineers, and so forth. And quite often, the message is that women don’t look like leaders or scientists, and vice versa. So let’s be smart about what images we’re putting in our presentations and displaying in front of the classroom-–just like I’m doing right now with this image of a single woman.

And on that note, I want to share the second picture I promised. It’s actually the same woman from the first one, in the same scene, except the camera has been turned:

Vigdis on balcony - edit

In this photo, we see the woman is still standing on her balcony, and down in the streets below are the people of Iceland. And they’re celebrating.

This photo was taken the day after that same single mother was elected president, making her the first democratically elected female president in the history of the world.

I keep this image hanging in my office at home. And I share it with you today because as a woman, sometimes, it’s helpful to be reminded of what else a president can look like.

Thank you.

* * * * *

Photo credit: Images of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who served as president of Iceland from 1980 to 1996.

First photo obtained from–senn-ganga-landsmenn-ad-kjorbordinu

Second photo obtained from

2 thoughts on “Change the world

  1. Wow, Jessica. Great stuff. You always seem to dig deep and find the words that, while they are often obvious, they are also a rude awakening for some people; and yet, they are also highly motivating. Your ending is superb. Loved the female president, and the desire to know that a president can present a different picture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I was really pleased with how this speech turned out, and glad that it was very well received in my class — by women AND men! There were hugs and tears. Our professor gave me a fist bump. Not exactly what you’d expect in business school! It was a good day. I will remember it for a long time.


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