An Open Letter to My Female Classmates

As I near graduation, a part of me wishes I had a chance to do it all over again. And not because these past four years have been the time of my life (believe me, they have), but because I wish I had realized earlier how much I was holding myself back as a student.

My frustration is perhaps better explained by a recent study of the habits of undergraduates and gender bias in the classroom. Anthropologist Dan Grunspan and his colleagues found young men consistently ranked their male peers academically higher than their just-as-savvy female classmates. And because reinforcement from faculty members and peers is enormously important for a young person’s education and career development, this phenomenon is known to have long-term effects. This is perhaps one of the reasons STEM fields in college remain male-dominated.

And unfortunately, this bias isn’t only perpetrated by men. My roommate recently spoke of an eye-opening Psychology experiment she participated it. The study involved two female participants who were instructed to complete a basic computer-generated task. Upon completion, both females were prompted with a their score, though the experimental subject’s screen was then followed by a message that stated women usually score lower than average on this task. The second time around, the experimental subject performed worse.

As women, we have been socialized our entire lives to believe that certain types of success and achievement are atypical for females. And what’s worse, this negative outlook subliminally affects female performance and behavior.

So here’s the advice I can offer having sat through four years of classes:

Sit in the front. Raise your hand. Speak your mind — what you have to say is important! And when you speak, speak loudly and confidently, with full knowledge that people will listen if you believe you’re worth being listened to. Take the hard classes — take the hard major! Challenge yourself, while recognizing your ability to overcome challenges and succeed.

And know that this unconscious bias doesn’t stop with academia.

Sheryl Sandberg, C.O.O of Facebook and Founder of Lean In, is ever aware that women internalize systematic discrimination, affecting workplace performance. Women consistently underrepresent their own abilities compared to their male counterparts, a predisposition that leads only 7% of women to negotiate their salaries immediately following college, compared to 57% of men.

Sandberg explains how women also face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfillment — a tradeoff that not only causes women to drop out of the workforce, but also subtly prevents them from taking on new challenges and responsibilities within their careers. These barriers might help explain why we live in a world where women only make 79 cents for every dollar men make, a world where out of 190 Heads of State, only 9 are women.

So, what does this mean for those of us preparing to graduate?

It means we have some work to do, literally.

Start with applying for that dream job, even if you don’t think there’s a chance in hell you’ll be hired. Because the odds are, your male competitor is just as qualified as you. And when you are hired, know that it was your talent and skills that got you there — not someone else’s. Then, when you navigate the ladder of success, don’t succumb to the false notion that it’s unacceptable for women to be outspoken, assertive, or powerful. Pursue your ambitions head on. And when life starts to get in the way, ask your partner to equally share in the responsibilities of raising a family.

But most of all, understand that changing these stereotypes starts with you.

— Corinne