Walking with a friend on the Upper West Side of Manhattan a few weeks ago, we passed the 2011 New York University Law School convocation ceremony (fancy for graduation). My friend, an alumni of NYU Law, now in her mid- 40’s with two kids and still practicing law watched the scene in front of her … proud parents, smiling and innocent graduates gleaming in their caps and gowns, posing for pictures and planning celebratory lunches. I asked her,, as a lawyer and a woman, what she would want to tell these fresh female graduates? Anticipating words of wisdom and nostalgia, I was floored when her answer was simple and required so little thought, she said, “I would tell them to RUN!”
Well lots have been written on “women in law”, which historically has been a difficult profession to blend with marriage and children due to the long hours and client pressures. Our second profile in 13 Women 13 Profiles of Success, Heather Greenwood Davis, was a lawyer at a big Toronto law firm, until she had her second child and then made the “career switch”. However, more and more law firms are trying hard to retain female talent by allowing flexible hours and work schedules and many times still keep women on the “partner track”. Accounting firms too, have made headlines in this area. Large Consumer Product Companies have developed programs that allow women to easily return to the work force once their kids are in school. It is definitely a slower process and evolution than many of us would like, but it is happening and the more women like us keep asking and pushing, the more and faster it will happen.
But my friend’s comment was troubling to say the least. It affirms that there is still so much more to be done for women and I think that perhaps part of the problem is that it is not employers alone that can stop women from “running” (as much as we all would like to think so). It is a partnership, a dual track. At the same time that employers need to change, women also need to be able to articulate for themselves what they want? How they see blending all of the competing roles in their life. Professionally, what works? What are you trying to achieve? What are you good at? What can you live with as status quo? What needs changing? Personally, what makes them happy? What are the must have’s in their life, the non-negotiables?
So as usual I started thinking (yes, it is exhausting being me sometimes) about all of the graduation addresses taking place at this time of year. Many probably very interesting and inspiring but realistic, probably not. So, what should we be telling our female graduates this June besides “Run for the hills”? What seeds should we be planting now so that they can begin to think about their future in real ways. Beyond the traditional get a job, find a partner, be happy and follow your dreams?
These are my top 5… what are yours?
- Enjoy the moment: If you are just starting out, enjoy being out in the world and free from some of the constraints of academia. You might go back but there is so much to enjoy as you enter the workforce or head out on a post graduate adventure. Take it all in. There’s lots of time to accomplish what you want for yourself but you can’t do everything at once. I once heard Madeline Albright speak and when asked how she accomplished all that she did, top position in government, family, etc. Her answer, “Because I didn’t do them all at once”. Exactly.
- Skill acquisition: Work hard not only at your “craft” but more. Management, writing, networking, public speaking, fundraising for a cause, board membership. These are all skills that can easily parlay into other areas when you need or want to make a change.
- Network: Women notoriously hate it but it is so important. If you start from the beginning of your work life it will be easier (and certainly more organized). The people that you meet in your office, trade events, the gym, travelling, are all sources of information and potential leads later on. Sounds cheesy, I know. Kind of is, but its true.
- Look for mentors: Could be one, could be lots. No rules. Find women who in your opinion, seem to be managing their lives in a way you like. Could be their career, their family life, relationships, doesn’t matter. Ask them questions, find out about choices they have made. How they have made them. Buy them a coffee and keep in touch. Believe me, they will be flattered.
- Check in with yourself periodically and don’t be afraid to hit “reset”: Set aside time to ask yourself questions. Set goals, nice meaty ones. Not just “Get a good job” or “be a good Mom” but try and be as specific as you can. Notice what gets your juices flowing and what is a total yawn. Nothing is set in stone. You are allowed to change your mind, modify what you want, and start again.
And lets be honest, no commencement speech is ever complete without a fabulously inspiring quote …I like this …
I hope your dreams take you to the corners of your smiles, to the highest of your hopes, to the windows of your opportunities, and to the most special places your heart has ever known. ~Author Unknown