How Does Obama Fare with His Career Advice to Women?

Overly generic or even blatantly sexist career advice to women has come under fire of late, from others and on this blog. How did President Obama do addressing a group of young female graduates at Barnard's commencement?

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On Monday, President Obama addressed the graduating class at Barnard College, the all-female "sister school" to his alma mater, Columbia. Overly generic or even blatantly sexist career advice to women—in particular, men giving women outmoded or seemingly fear-mongering "tips" that ignore the current context and gender biases inherent in the employment environment—has come under special fire of late, perhaps prompted by discussions of a "war on women." Take the recent example of Jack Welch, who offended an array of women executives at a recent gathering with his male-centric advice so much that some of those women actually walked out.

There's something to be said, indeed, for choosing a male role model to talk to graduating female seniors aspiring to careers in which they'll surely compete with both men and other women, and some might even say that a man's not really the right person for that job. Some did exactly that when The New York Times' Jill Abramson was bumped to give the commencement spot to Obama. But he is the leader of the free world, and it seems, as evidenced by the cheering and photos, that by and large the Barnard community was pretty happy to have him there offering up his advice for their successful futures. Maybe it's also because of the kind of advice he gave.

Obama made three key points, all in a light-hearted vein typical for a college graduation speech, but with an emphasis on the ladies, as relevant to his audience. ABC's Devin Dwyer sums up three key pieces of Obama's advice:

  • “Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table.  Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”
  • “Never underestimate the power of your example.”
  • ”Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy.”

Expounding on these three points, Obama reminded the graduates that they should be role models and bold activists, that they can be stylish and powerful, and that others before them have done it, too—like Michelle Obama, and his own mom, a single parent, women who kept striving for their goals and dreams despite setbacks. Obama also drew attention to the realities of the job market, currently harsh for both men and women graduating, acknowledging that "in many ways you have it even tougher than we did," but telling the graduates they they're tougher, too, than those who came before. The speech is part tough love and facing facts—but with plenty of pro-woman empowerment language. For example, Obama says, "Of course, as young women, you’re also going to grapple with some unique challenges, like whether you’ll be able to earn equal pay for equal work; whether you’ll be able to balance the demands of your job and your family; whether you’ll be able to fully control decisions about your own health." Obama gets adorable dad points for invoking Sasha and Malia, the thought of whose graduation he says brings him to tears, and cements his female-friendly status by referring to powerful ladies (and former commencement speakers) Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, and Meryl Streep. And extra credit for this: "We know we are better off when women are treated fairly and equally in every aspect of American life—whether it’s the salary you earn or the health decisions you make," he says. The Obama campaign has made it a point to put women at the forefront, and Obama does it well in this speech.

In comparison, former GE "master and commander" Jack Welch told women in 2009 that "there's no such thing as work-life balance," and that taking time off for family "can offer a nice life" but probably means you're killing your chances at getting to the top of your career. More recently, he told women to "over deliver," and that "performance is it!" These soundbites are not all that different from what Obama said: Persevere, fight for your seat at the table, and the like...but they do seem to indicate a boys-club mentality that Obama is free from. (If Obama had said, "fight harder than the boys for your seat at the table," that would be different). Further, Welch knocks diversity and mentorship programs as nice, maybe, but "not how women get ahead." But with his talk of examples and activism, it would seem that Obama would firmly support such programs.

As one executive commented on Welch's advice, "He showed no recognition that the culture shapes the performance metrics, and the culture is that of white men." With Obama, there does seem to be a recognition of the realities of the society that we're in as well as an acknowledgement that those realities are evolving. Maybe that's the simplest way to compare the advice of these two. Obama's is advice for a changing world; Welch's exists firmly in the sphere that he succeeded in—which is a sphere that many of today's working women hope to change, not to simply work around or adapt to.

Worse than Welch's old-fashioned advice, however, may be the truly generic advice given to women to "get ahead" in the male workplace, like learning to golf and wearing the right powersuit, as described in a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal. It's fair to say that Obama's speech went miles, and probably decades, beyond both of those old tropes, regardless of anyone's politics.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.