Despite the glorious idealism of graduation season, the country’s roster of commencement events reveals a decidedly unideal reality: The number of female speakers is still woefully disproportionate to the number of men who take the podium.
Yes, like many of the worlds that graduates will encounter after graduating, it appears graduation itself perpetuates a gender gap.
Of U.S. News and World Report’s top 50 universities, this year, a whopping 33 featured class-wide commencement addresses by men (including those given by university presidents). Only 11 featured addresses by women. You’ve heard of the big guys: Matt Damon’s making his way to MIT, and Ken Burns is stopping by Stanford. Steven Spielberg is headed to Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania managed to score Lin Manuel Miranda—and so on.
Meanwhile, at many schools, high-profile women were on hand for ceremonies, but instead of being asked to speak at the main event, they spoke at more casual “Class Days”—the lower-pressure ceremonies before the big cap-and-gown celebration. Author Jodi Picoult spoke at Princeton’s Class Day, Samantha Power was at Yale’s Class Day, and Soledad O’Brien was Vanderbilt University’s Senior Day speaker. (They were all fantastic, btw.)
With women graduating from college today at higher rates than men, why aren’t more female speakers donning mortar boards? Well, there are a few possible explanations. First, most colleges book high-profile alums, and if the school has fewer well-known female graduates, that means a much smaller pool from which to choose. (This, of course, only underscores the need for policies that support helping women reach positions of power.) Second, the broader speaker business is long dominated by men—who also, of course, typically command higher fees.
But despite all of this, let’s not allow glum statistics to diminish the inspiring, brilliant, and moving advice from this year’s female commencement speakers, including First Lady Michelle Obama, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and many more.
Here’s some of the best of what they had to say.
“Stand side by side.”
Michelle Obama, Jackson State University
FLOTUS helped kick off grad season early with a rousing speech at the historically black Mississippi college, where she preached the importance of equality in the state that had just signed into law the anti-LGBT measure allowing people to refuse services to others based on their religious beliefs. Obama had a four-letter word response: V-O-T-E: “You can hashtag all over Instagram and Twitter, but those social media movements will disappear faster than a Snapchat if you’re not also registered to vote, if you’re not also sending in your absentee ballot,” she said. “We’ve got to stand side by side with all our neighbors—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender; Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindu immigrants, Native Americans. The march to civil rights isn’t just about African-Americans, it’s about all Americans.”
(The first lady also delivered the final commencement speech of her tenure on Friday, addressing graduates at the City College of New York.)
“Don’t try to stop the critics.”
Rita Moreno, Berklee College of Music
The powerhouse actress and singer—who might be the most energetic and youthful-looking 84-year-old in the world—told grads that seeing fellow Puerto Rican Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton three times inspired her to rap her speech. Thank goodness, because it's a keeper: “You must have the au-dacity, the pluck, the grit, the pers-pi-cacity. Your talent may be terrific, your writing pro-lific—but do you have the mo-ti-vation to use your cre-a-tion for this gen-er-ation, to give it the passion, the voice to speak its choice?” she rapped. “Will you invent the vo-cab-u-lary of dis-o-nance for love, for good, for rev-o-lution, if needed, in the ins-ti-tution of society, should it fail to provide the variety to include all people, races, kinds? …. Yo, I’m sayin’ write your score for more than popularity—live life with clarity—of who you are—your worth on earth. Don’t try to stop the critics. Keep writin’ the lyrics. Do that and pass the master class.”
“What if you had 11 days left?”
Sheryl Sandberg, Univesity of California, Berkeley
In one of the most emotional speeches this year, the Facebook COO talked about her husband’s unexpected death and the deep irony that her loss also brought her gratitude. “Last month, eleven days before the anniversary of Dave’s death, I broke down crying to a friend of mine. We were sitting—of all places—on a bathroom floor. I said: ‘Eleven days. One year ago, he had eleven days left. And we had no idea.’ We looked at each other through tears, and asked how we would live if we knew we had eleven days left. As you graduate, can you ask yourselves to live as if you had eleven days left? I don’t mean blow everything off and party all the time— although tonight is an exception. I mean live with the understanding of how precious every single day would be. How precious every day actually is.”
Oprah, Johnson C. Smith University
The forever queen of daytime—and veteran commencement speaker—turned up at the comparatively small ceremony because two graduating seniors were former students at her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Oprah revealed one of her maxims, inspired by a quote by Rev. Jesse Jackson: “Excellence is the best deterrent to racism and sexism.” After hearing it at age 16, she said, “From that day forward, that became my mantra, and I’ve tried in everything I do to be excellent. ’Cause even if you flippin’ fries at McDonald’s, if you are excellent, everybody wants to be in your line. Whatever you do that is excellent, people notice you, and they talk about you, and they say, ‘Did you see that girl over there?’”
“Empathy isn’t for sissies.”
Sheryl WuDunn, Rice University
Author. Business exec. Pulitzer Prize winner. WuDunn is well-acquainted with big issues, but focused on something seemingly smaller: making empathy a priority. “Ah, you think that empathy, altruism, it’s all for sissies,” she said. “All you macho men and women out there, think of the people whom you like and to whom you are drawn and ask why. They probably showed some kindness to you, went out of their way to explain something to you. Helped you navigate a difficulty in some way. Even possibly saved you from some harm. That is altruism.”
“Break the mold of traditional expectations.”
Anne Marie Slaughter, UNC-Chapel Hill
Her Atlantic cover story Why Women Still Can’t Have It All sparked years-long conversations about gender equality (and more than a few books), but journalist and CEO Slaughter primarily focused on the issue of care—specifically, caring for others as much as you care for yourself.
"It is time for men, alongside women as equals, to be bold and to break the mold of traditional expectations for how men should lead their lives just as we have broken those expectations of how women should lead their lives," she said. "Some things will always be the same. The sky will always be Carolina blue. But change is eternal and it falls now to you to change the world for the better over the course of your lives.”
“Do good by doing well.”
Lulu Chow Wang, Wellesley College
The insanely successful investor and philanthropist—who has donated over $25 million to her alma mater—talked about studying English literature (not the ideal choice to her first-generation immigrant parents, but they were supportive in the end) and how she broke into the male-dominated investment world.
“For each of us, we need to listen to our own inner voices, to know what we really want, not what seems most impressive at the time, whether to others or even to ourselves,” she said. “From my perspective, we should all strive to succeed in whatever we do, but success is so much better if shared with others—not at the end of our lives in our wills, but throughout our lives. All of us can do good by doing well. Doing good, by doing well: It can be in any field, whether nonprofit or for profit. We can give back in material ways, but just as importantly, we can share our achievements by opening doors for other women, by setting leadership examples of excellence, but achieving it with openness, fairness and respect for others.”
Kara Cutruzzula is a writer and editor covering culture, travel, and the occasional life hack. She rhymes with Methuselah and lives in New York.