#WeToo: The Courageous Conversations We Should Be Having with Women About Career Readiness

By Ashley Motley, Kansas State University

Rosie the RiveterTuesday evening I was sitting in my car, heat on full blast, listening to NPR’s All Things Considered as I drove to meet up with the small group of women I spend time with on Tuesdays. Ailsa Chang, the host, began the next story by sharing that Naomi Parker-Fraley, the California woman who inspired the famous “Rosie the Riveter” poster had died that day. Thinking about the striking image of the woman in a red-polka-dotted handkerchief, her fist raised in strength and defiance to symbolize a new era of women working, made me pause to think about where we are now.

Women in the workplace have accomplished a lot since the 1940’s and yet, as Ann Curry put it in her recent interview with People Magazine, “The women’s movement got us into the workplace, but it didn’t make us safe once we got there.” She was referencing the recent, brave revelations of the many women sharing during the #MeToo movement and Times Up campaign. These thoughts of where we currently are with workplace culture for women lingered as I reached my destination and settled into conversation with my small group. The lovely, smart, career-driven women in front of me began to share the frustrations of the last week – many frustrations including the constant struggle to balance family and career, secure respect, and have community outside of work while still maintaining sanity because of limited time.  We talked about our desire to cultivate what matters in our lives – but what is that? What if we miss the important stuff while we are focusing on the wrong stuff?

Then, I thought about my students, as I have many times in the last few months. How do I have conversations with the young women I’m advising about what they cannot possibly understand yet? How do I tell them “I know you are facing adversity now, but gather all of your courage because the workplace is a wild frontier for women who want to lead…there are still so many challenges…”? I think about the students I’ve advised that are career changers. We’ve sat across from each other and tears have welled in both our eyes because we both know the struggle and the grit it takes, as a woman, to push past challenges from a past workplace experience and march boldly forward into a new season.

Therefore, I have a proposal. I believe as career professionals on campuses, we are uniquely situated to have powerful conversations about what is happening in culture in regards to women in the workplace. Here’s my proposal – let’s have courageous conversations with the women that enter our offices to talk about career readiness. Instead of just talking about how to negotiate salary, let’s also talk about what specific cultural challenges women face in different industries. Let’s give the women we are advising permission to want a career now and permission to change their minds if they decide they want something different down the road. Let’s equip women to be able to confront what we hope they’ll never have to face – harassment in the workplace. Let’s talk about what is okay and what isn’t okay and what to do about it. Let’s empathize with young women about what it feels like to not have the same respect we may see male colleagues receiving. Let’s go there, because I have big hope for the next wave of graduates entering the workplace. I think they can help move us forward.

Not sure where to start with a courageous conversation? Here are a few “active listening” questions you may utilize.

  • Have you thought about what you value in a work setting? Have you thought about what you value outside of work and how that might be affected by this work? Do you think this will look different 10 years from now?
  • Have you had the opportunity to shadow in this industry yet? Let’s talk about why that might be a good idea before taking an internship.
  • Are you working with a female mentor? Let’s talk about how to build relationships with women that have been doing this work, so you can seek feedback about how to best prepare for the industry.
  • Have you ever felt as if your voice was ignored or silenced? How did that make you feel?
  • What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
  • Where do you usually sit in a classroom or meeting room? How can you practice positioning yourself so that you are heard?

More great questions to consider with women advisees can be found in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Discussion Guide.

The difficult truth is that without additional workplace changes and enacted policy, women in the modern workplace may have reached the limits of their ability to multi-task. As career professionals, we can be advocates for the changes that would create more flexible and empowering work environments, but it is also our job to prepare our students for the truth they’ll encounter.

As I write this, I have just returned from a speech by Martin Luther King III commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to our campus – the last campus he would speak on before his assassination. In his speech on the values of his father, Mr. King paused to say, “we will have gender equality one day.” He went on to talk about how, as we saw with the action of his father, a small group of men and women can create much change. I believe the individuals that make up our SoACE membership are capable of great change. We have the ability to be the great voices and advocates our students need.

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Ashley Motley lives with her family in Manhattan, KS. She serves as an Assistant Director and liaison to the College of Arts and Sciences for Kansas State University. She received her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction, college student affairs, from the University of South Florida. Currently, she serves as the KG Chair for the SoACE Experiential Education Knowledge Group.  She enjoys messy family dinners with her 4-year-old and husband, hiking the Konza Prairie and the CO mountains, and traveling to see friends in the southeast. 


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