Women’s Day Speech to Middle School Students

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, we had an assembly today and I was asked to give a speech about gender equality. I’m a talker and a writer, so being asked to give a speech is something that really energizes and fulfills me. Below is the text of my speech, delivered to about 300 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. The images were projected behind me.

When I was in elementary school, my mom taught aerobics in the evenings and I would go and hang out in the kids play area at the gym.  I remember playing with two little kids, maybe they were 4 or 5 years old. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. The little boy said, “I want to be a ballerina.”

The girl turned to him.  “You can’t be a ballerina, only girls can be ballerinas.”

The boy shrugged and said, “Okay, I’ll be a dinosaur.”

It’s a funny story, but I’ve remembered it for 30 years.  It was the first time I was aware of gender inequality. It was just a little moment, sure, but I saw it happen in front of my eyes.  How might the path of that boy’s life have been different because of that interaction? Maybe that future–the one where he becomes a world famous dancer, travels the world, starts his own ballet school in Moscow or New York City–that future may have just closed forever to him in that moment.  And he didn’t even notice. That seed was planted so young: he learned that as a boy some doors were closed to him. He probably didn’t even remember that that was the moment he learned to accept that reality.  

We talk about gender inequality on large scales, and that is an important part.  56% of US college students are women, but only 24% of congress members and 18% of governors are women.  Women are only 5% of CEOs of major corporations. We should also be concerned that men have shorter life expectancy and men and boys are more likely to be the victims of violence and suicide.  

But we have to think of the small personal ways that someone is treated differently because of their gender.  The moments in classrooms, on playgrounds, around dinner tables.  

But who cares?  Maybe you agree that boys shouldn’t dance, or care for children, or design clothing.  What’s the harm in that? 

Well, as a teacher, my goal for students is to open as many doors as possible for you so that you get to have as many choices as you can.  If you never learn to read, your choices are limited. If you don’t practice public speaking, then some doors will be closed to you. Don’t we all want the most choices possible?  Don’t we all want to grow up to do the work our hearts call for? The kind of work that makes us feel energized, alive, fired up?  

Think for a minute about the thing you love the most.  Maybe it’s painting, or video games; soccer, or math puzzles; building stuff, or making up stories.  So let’s imagine for a second that you lived in a parallel world where the thing you love is done by almost no one of your gender.  Other kids laugh at you when they find out you like that thing. They tease and make jokes, they whisper and snicker.  

And now, imagine that because of all that, you abandoned that thing you love.  It’s no longer a choice for your life. You decide maybe it’s better to be a dinosaur.  

Okay, it sounds crazy.  It sounds silly. But could it have already happened to you?  When did someone say something about gender expectations to you as a kid?  Do you even remember that moment? Do you like the things you like because you actually like them, or because you saw all the people of your gender doing it?  

Are you freaking out?  Maybe, maybe not. But you should be asking yourself all the time if your thoughts are your own or if they’re a reflection of the limits placed on you by the world around you.  Ask yourself if you are limited or lifted up. If you are limited, shrug it off.  

But wait, how do we undo this?  How do we show that little boy that he can be a ballet dancer?  

I think the answer is that we surround ourselves with models.  Have you heard the phrase “Representation matters”? It means that what we see has a big impact on us.  Seeing people that look like us in the world and on TV and social media help us imagine what’s possible.  So I charge you to open your eyes and seek out representation that opens all those little closed doors. For example, this photographer completed an entire exhibition of Swedish dads taking 6 months off of work to raise their children.  


Or look at these two astronauts who completed the first all-female space walk. 


Or these dads learning to do their daughters’ hair.  


Here’s Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, speaking before parliament while pregnant.  


That’s Virgil Abloh, a fashion designer who runs the fashion brand Off-White and has been named Louis Vitton’s new designer.


Or Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, making this guy really wish he wasn’t on that stage any more.  


And here is Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, speaking at Harvard’s graduation in 2011.  


Or, yes, Cristiano Martino of the Australian Ballet.  


You don’t even need to look that far.  Look around this room at the adults who teach and coach you every day.  They set amazing examples of strength, dedication, and passion–regardless of gender.  We are men of science, and women of science. Women who love poetry and men who love poetry.  We are shy men and women, outgoing men and women. Let these adults show you the possibilities for your future.  I know that I speak for all of your teachers when I tell you that we believe in you. Our hope for you is that you believe in yourselves enough to tear down all barriers and accept no limitations.  

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