Monday, June 24, 2013

Grad School is Not a Key to the C-Suite

Recent figures from the Census Bureau indicate women now earn more advanced degrees than men. This is a vast difference from ten years ago, when men held the majority of advanced degrees. But women should not be so fast to celebrate. We are well aware that this shift has further cracked that glass ceiling in terms of women’s improved economic status, but gender parity in terms of women’s leadership still does not exist.

Advanced degrees have not guaranteed women positions in the C-Suite suit, becoming partners at law firms, or serving as elected officials. According to a 2009 report by the White House Project, a former nonprofit dedicated to advancing women's leadership in all communities and sectors, the number of women in top leadership positions in fields ranging from military and journalism to business and politics, hovers around 18 percent. This is quite puzzling. If there are more women than ever ready to assume leadership positions, why are so few in them?

Women are obviously ambitious in pursuing and completing advanced degrees. However, advanced degrees do not necessarily guarantee jobs. The missing link is what some management gurus might call “soft skills.”

The bottom line is that employees need professional skills such as negotiation, business writing, management, public speaking, and the ability to utilize social networks.  These are not always taught in the classroom. Moreover, women have traditionally been socialized against developing these skills required to break into the “old boys” network.

Take me as an example. After finishing a graduate internship at the United Nations, and a graduate fellowship at Congress, I was unemployed.  I had fully ridden the wave of opportunities given to me through my advanced degree and was stuck upon entering the workforce. Two years later, I became the Executive Director of the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN), a nonprofit dedicated to advancing women’s leadership in the public policy arena by providing college women with role models and skill trainings.

How did this transition happen? I developed my soft skills and learned how to network. Thanks to the “We Lead” program and the Women’s Information Network in Washington, DC, I was able to achieve such success at a young age.

I have definitely benefited from my M.A. in Applied Women’s Studies. I am not discrediting advanced degrees. They are an essential ingredient in the recipe, but as in any delicious salad, you need the essential lettuce as well as the mouth-watering dressing. So many young women ferociously focus on attacking the GRE, GMAT, or LSAT, as if getting a good score on these tests, and getting into a top school is a be all and end all solution to success.  But even attaining a top degree from a top school does not guarantee that dream job.

Anne Moses, the director of IGNITE, a non-profit geared toward training young women to run for political office shared with the Stanford Daily, “Not only do women feel less qualified than men when they are objectively qualified, but they actually place higher value on having qualifications,” she said. “They think that you need to have multiple advanced degrees to run for office. Men don’t actually think that, and in fact they’re right.”  Rather than rely on advanced degrees, women need to be taught how to rely on their professional capabilities.

Women need to put more focus on soft skills, that dressing that will add the additional flavor to their already accomplished resumes. Let’s prioritize them as much as we prioritize those diplomas.

We must open the pipeline for female leadership by bringing professional training and mentorship to women before they enter the workforce. Young women need role models who will teach them professional skills. If a recent college graduate does not know how to negotiate her salary, then she’ll be sanctioned to a lifetime of earning less than the guy in the next cubicle. The earlier a woman begins building these skills, the farther she will go. As women advance ourselves, we will advance our societies.

The good news for advocates of female leadership is that women are not on their own in this quest. There are many amazing nonprofit organizations that help young women live up to their potential.

Here is what you can do: mentor a young female leader, offer informational interviews whenever possible, and most importantly, keep supporting crucial organizations such as the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN), Running Start, Ignite, the Women’s Research and Education Network (WREI), Girl Up, and so many others.

By support I do mean funding, but additionally participating in their events, networking with young female leaders to bring them up the ladder, and if you have a daughter, keep this in mind when you think about her professional development.

I celebrate the fact that so many women are now achieving the highest levels of education.  However, I eagerly await the day when women’s leadership is 50/50 with that of men’s. I want to see the day when half of our elected officials are female. I know that with your help, that of your daughters, and your continued support of the great organizations above, we will soon see that day.

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