While young women learn in school that their female experiences matter, the differences between college and the real world can lead to a new form of uncertainty, suggests contributor Charlotta Kratz, a lecturer in the communication department at Santa Clara University, who writes that the skills they have developed in the classroom aren’t always appreciated on the job.
TAKING IT PUBLIC
by Charlotta Kratz
Once at a dinner party I met a woman who had been one of the first women to graduate with a business degree from University of California, Berkeley. It was in the early 1960s. When she graduated people had expected her to become a secretary, but, she said, “I didn’t go to business school to be a secretary.” Instead she had had a long and successful career with an insurance company. She didn’t marry until she was retired, and she never had children.
Someone asked her if she had felt discriminated against as a woman.
Never in my professional life, she said. Everyone knew I was good at
my job. But after retirement she had started feeling judged. In the
eyes of the world around her, she had gone from being a leader to
being a little old lady. There wasn’t room in people’s imagination for
‘retired business woman.’
I was watching the coverage of Ted Kennedy’s funeral over the weekend.
There was a wake on Friday, and a Funeral Mass and burial on Saturday.
Many friends, family members, and colleagues spoke. There were funny
stories, heartfelt memories, poignant moments, and lots of warmth.
On MSNBC (my default channel) two male political commentators chatted
away. They talked about Ted Kennedy and politics, Ted Kennedy and
sports, Ted Kennedy and relationships, Ted Kennedy and life. Guy talk.
Insightful and interesting, but definitely guy talk.
Women may be equal to men professionally, but we could never talk
publicly about personal female experiences the way men talk about
personal, private, male experiences (like the relationship between a
man and his son) in public.
The experience of being a man is of common interest. The experience of
being a woman is not.
Obviously there are shades of gray here. There are areas in society
where female experiences, voices, have been increasingly valued. One
such area is, I think, education. Educators are often women. Many
students are women. At the university where I teach more than 50% of
the undergraduates are women. In our department, communication, it’s
not uncommon to find classes with 20 , and 4 young men. And
add to that the fact that higher learning, at least in the humanities
and in social science, is collaborative – female – in attitude.
What happens is, I think, that besides doing well academically young
women also learn in school that their experiences matter. They learn
that authority figures think like them. In a crisis they can ask a
teacher for a tampon. There are gender studies classes, and the
implicit message there is that female experiences actually have value
for the larger group.
Maybe this learning environment has made the young women who graduate
today unprepared for what faces them outside of the university: Same
old world, where women can be professionals, but only if they check
their female-ness at the door.
It’s that lack of preparedness that is interesting. I think schools
are ahead of the rest of American society when it comes to gender
equality, but I think young women end up suffering for it. I think
young women walk out into the world expecting to be heard, and I think
they feel disconnected and depressed when they are not. I think this
leads to a new form of uncertainty. The skills they have developed
don’t work, and quite literally, they don’t know what to do.
In Scandinavian countries (I am Swedish, so this comparison comes
naturally to me) the situation is a little bit different. There are
gender equalizing structures in place: affordable child care, 12+
months of paid parental leave, and 5-7 weeks of paid vacation per year.
Just to mention a few. It’s easier for two spouses to have careers,
and an overwhelming majority of families do have two careers.
My point is this: These programs have been put in place after public
discussions. That means that unlike in the US, child care, just to
take one example, is an issue that gets public attention.
That is a huge difference. It doesn’t mean that Swedish families have
it all figured out, or that the tension between career and family
doesn’t exist. It does. Swedish women are tired and frustrated too.
But they talk about it. Society talks about it. Politicians consider
In 2009, in Sweden, the experience of being a woman is of public
interest. Swedish women in their 70s, my mother’s generation, say that
“we’ve come far”. And they are proud.