THE BLOG

It's the Economy, Girlfriend!

01/23/2012 04:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2012

"The end of 'fair' comes the day you graduate."

That's the tough reality I deliver on campuses in speeches to college women. Most shake their head in agreement. They know what lies ahead.

Yes, in 2011, for the first time in history, women surpassed men as recipients of college degrees. But, once they're in the workforce, women have vastly different career and pay trajectories. In fields like corporate management and politics, men still occupy 84% and 83% of leadership roles, and women's progress has stalled or is moving backwards. For wages, even though young women enter the workforce on a par with their male-counterparts, by their mid-20s a gender wage gap develops and over the years, it widens.

Why? Because men enter the workforce with a powerful network of connections -- his fraternity, his lacrosse team, his dad's golfing foursome. These connections lead young men down profitable career paths, and pull them up the ladder.

Not so for women -- for us, building our network is unfinished business. As I explained to host Bonnie Erbe, on her PBS show To the Contrary:

"One of greatest gifts of that the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave us, was for women to enter the workforce. But it was like giving us a car, without driving lessons."

Here's the required lessons:

Lesson 1: It's the Economy, Girlfriend
The central issue for today's women is economic empowerment. With money comes control -- not dependency, the root cause for so many of the evils impacting today's women. Thankfully, women have recently started to grasp the importance of their finances as reflected in a pronounced shift in voting patterns to prioritizing economics over social issues.

Lesson 2: It's Okay to Make Money
Career choices are the major culprit in wage disparity. Young women are bombarded with messaging, not only from the media and popular culture, but also from college faculty, that they should play nice: help people; don't be greedy by seeking power or financial gain. A Princeton University student told The Daily Beast: "People, including faculty, are turned off if we seem over-zealous." Women now hold 80% of psychology degrees, 90% of social worker jobs and 88% of home health care jobs. Meanwhile, the number of college women entering Wall Street has declined by 22% in the past decade.

These are words I repeat on campus, in the media, and now here again: "There's nothing wrong with making money!"

Lesson 3: Build Your Brand; Make Yourself Indispensable
Think of your brand as the sum of who you know. What you are worth today -- and what you will be worth to future employees is in large part related to your contacts, your good connections. It's a mistake to think that the only people who matter are your superiors. Colleagues your own age are just as important. As you move up the ranks together in your careers, your peer group will bring you business -- or revenue, which gives your brand value and makes you indispensable.

Lesson 4: #Mentor_Up!
Building connections does not naturally occur for women. Last spring, a Barnard College junior told me: "Mentorship is really important because I have a lot of opposition going on."

Which got me thinking: what if we harnessed the tools of social media to modernize mentoring?! To help young women to move forward again.

We approached the Staples Foundation with our vision: The Mentor Exchange -- an inclusive, futuristic approach to multifaceted mentoring. Our plan is to use the tools of social media to enable young women to find mentors, forge connections with their peers and have a place to share advice and suggestions.

Lesson 5: Good Girls DO Ask
Even as we were preparing to launch The Mentor Exchange in January as part of National Mentoring Month, getting young women to step forward as mentees was more challenging than finding mentors!

Every one of our 20 Pioneer Mentors -- highly accomplished women in their respective career fields -- readily admits that mentoring is a key to their success. Barbara Buono, the first woman to serve as Senate Majority Leader in New Jersey, said:

"Mentorship matters, because behind every great woman is another woman who took the time to care."

The truth is we women must unapologetically seek out connections. The Mentor Exchange can help: forging bonds with both mentors and peers who can lend support and give advice (watch this introductory video).

With our five lessons behind us, it's finally time: Girlfriend, Build that Network!