My friend Richelle, now 32, can recall the exact moment when the question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” got real:
I was about to start my senior year of college, and I was terrified. I had been a pretty precocious overachiever type growing up, and I’d been hearing that question from approving adults pretty much all my life. “President!” I’d say, or “Supreme Court Justice!” The kind of thing that’s easy to say when you’re 10 or 15. But there I was, staring into my last official year of school, and I realized I desperately needed to answer that question. I felt paralyzed, terrified of making the wrong choices. I was lost in a backwards sort of way: I knew exactly where I was, but I didn’t have a clue where I was supposed to be going.
I remember those days well, and they were not pretty! I had a similarly frightening realization starting my senior year of college, but unlike Richelle, I had declared a career direction early on. I was majoring in fashion merchandising, and I was doing really well—and I hated it, a lot. In a panic, I considered changing majors, but that would mean extra years of school. I talked it over with some good friends, and God used my friend Dan to steer me in the right direction. Dan had been accepted to Harvard Business School’s deferred admission program, where you are admitted with the understanding that you will work for two years before enrolling. He encouraged me to apply, even though I wasn’t a business major and hadn’t, at that point, even taken many business classes. I decided to give it a shot, and thankfully I did because it set me squarely on what was the right path for me.
Having seen my own kids and their friends approach that same “what am I going to do for real” point in recent years, I wish high schools, colleges, and even churches were doing more to help young people, and young women especially, navigate that question.
It’s an exciting—and daunting—time for women in the workplace. Research shows that the wage gap between male and female earners has narrowed significantly in recent decades, but it remains persistent, especially at the highest levels. A study released by the World Economic Forum suggests that at current rates, we won’t see a close to the global gender gap in workforce participation and opportunity until 2095.
The good news is there are things you can do to help yourself, your daughters, your nieces, and your friends approach their future careers with confidence.
Put the Challenges in Perspective
Big numbers and statistics are fine, but when it comes down to it, what is there for any individual woman to do about pay gaps or other gender inequality issues? First of all, recognize that your true worth will never be determined by any number on your paycheck. You are a child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. He has gifted you and brought you into the workplace with one purpose, and that is to serve him. That doesn’t mean you have to ignore injustices, just that you are not defined by them.
I tend to think “doing something” about workplace inequality is a lot like voting. Each individual vote is small—miniscule even—in the big picture. Some people look at that and think their vote doesn’t matter, so why bother? But it does matter, a lot. Each vote may be small, but without them, there would be no big picture. Similarly, when it comes to workplace inequalities, women can “vote” in lots of different ways. They can seek out companies that share their values. They can strive to be fantastic employees. And they can speak up. We all should speak up (in respectful and honorable ways) when confronted with injustice. That can mean having a frank discussion with your boss or HR representative, or it can mean going out of your way to secure a fair wage for an employee you manage. In the long run, every voice added up will make a difference.
Evaluating the Options
If I could go back in time and sit 21-year-old Richelle—or myself!—down for a talk, I would start with some assessments. In order to make good decisions about your future, you need to know some things about yourself. What are your God-given strengths? What excites you? It’s okay if you can’t put your finger on a particular career just yet. When I made the decision to try to go to business school, I didn’t know or expect that I would end up in commercial real estate. But I knew I loved working with people and leading them toward common goals. I did not, on the other hand, have the necessary passion or patience for the creative world of fashion.
In addition to thinking through these things on your own or with friends, I recommend everyone seek out some sort of formal skills or strengths assessment, not just early on, but periodically throughout your career.
In a competitive marketplace like ours, it can’t hurt to think through some areas—like science and technology-related fields—where significant opportunities for women exist or are growing. Too many young women overlook such fields because they mistakenly assume they aren’t qualified. If your giftedness and passions lead you toward technology or anything else, then you should pursue that calling with vigor.
There is a special sort of energy that people bring to a job when they are working from within their giftedness and passions. It’s powerful and engaging. By entering into the workforce, you have the opportunity to bring that kind of energy with you, impacting everyone around you and bringing glory to God.
Take a Deep Breath
The big questions of life are, well, big. It’s good to wrestle with them because it forces you to think through who you are and what you value. But it really is okay if you don’t have all of the answers figured out just yet. I know many adults who are still working toward answering that “what are you going to be when you grow up?” question well into their 30s and even 40s. We should all do our best to seek out and pursue God’s calling in our lives. Just don’t forget that ultimately what you are is God’s unique and loved creation.