Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar-worthy truth for young women

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Don’t ask Reese Witherspoon who she’s wearing this Sunday on the Oscar’s Red Carpet. Witherspoon, who is a producer as well as an award-winning actress, would rather talk about the importance of advancing opportunities for young women than the label on her dress – a refreshing change worth noting as we prepare to celebrate National Women’s History Month.

Witherspoon’s female-led production company creates films and TV shows featuring women in leading roles such as “Wild” and “Gone Girl.” So far they are generating serious cash. “Gone Girl” pulled down more than $400 million at the box office. This, along with her new Southern clothing line, earned her the title of Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year for 2015.

Witherspoon sends a clear message that she has owned the change she wanted to see in Hollywood in offering more and stronger roles for women. She noted in a Glamour interview:

“I have this drive from my upbringing to be a doer, not just a complainer. I have achieved a certain amount of success, and I felt a responsibility to my daughter and to women in this world to create more opportunities for women. Women of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Young women can take a page from the script of her life. We exert agency or control over our careers, our lives, and our circumstances. Unfortunately, that’s not the lesson taught on college campuses today.

There’s the pervasive view – peddled from the White House to Hollywood – that as women we suffer from discrimination just because we are women. From pink taxes to pay gaps, discrimination leaves us economically worse off almost at every turn. We are conditioned to expect that when we enter the workforce we’ll be at the mercy of the marketplace rather than driving the opportunities we want for ourselves, our peers and our kids. What’s missing from this narrative is agency.

In this saga, government becomes the handsome stranger riding in on his horse of mandates and legislation to rescue us helpless damsels tied to the railroad tracks of life while discrimination is plowing full steam ahead.

Against this backdrop, the accomplishments of Witherspoon, Oprah, Marth Stewart, and even Beyoncé stand as anomalies – earning them a cape and an “S” on their chest. These women are extremely talented and have faced obstacles, but they are the ones who pushed for their success using grit and their gifts to overcome challenges. They paved the way for women to follow if they choose.

Women do lag behind men in many leadership roles from the halls of Congress to private sector boardrooms. Women comprise 20 percent of Congress and hold just six governorships. Just 20 females hold the chief executive position at S&P 500 companies and women made up 17.9 percent of the directors of Fortune 1,000 companies.

College campuses conversely, look like a whole different world. Women are thriving there. For the first time in U.S. history, women are more likely to hold a four-year college degree than men. We outnumber men, comprising 56 percent of total enrollment. We outpace men in terms of degrees conferred at every level: associates (62 percent), bachelors (57.4 percent), master’s (62.6 percent), and doctorate degrees (53.3 percent). Thus, we start our working lives with higher educational attainment than men.

However, the choices we make starting with our courses of study in college undoubtedly have an impact on the salaries we pull down after college and potentially overall earnings potential. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2011-12 academic year, the five most popular majors for bachelor’s degrees among men were business administration, finance, biology/biological sciences, political sciences and accounting. Whereas for women it was psychology, business administration and management, nursing, elementary education and teaching, and biology/biological sciences.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s data on the labor market for recent college graduates finds that the 10 highest median wage majors for college grads both early in their career and mid-career are in the fields of engineering and business. These majors also enjoy the lowest unemployment rates. Among the bottom 10 are social services, psychology, fine arts, early childhood, education performing arts, and religion. These experience unemployment rates as high as double those of the highest earners majors.

Not surprisingly, women don’t gravitate to finance and other high earning majors but are overrepresented in majors that don’t pay very well. The jobs we choose (or earn) tend to be lesser paying jobs. Even female math majors, a pretty lucrative major, are more likely to choose a profession like teaching rather than something with a bigger paycheck. That has to do with fulfillment.

Preferences – not necessarily discrimination – leads us to make the choices we do. An NPR journalist who majored in applied math and holds MBA choose to work in journalism even though she may have earned millions in other fields because she finds her work fulfilling. According to a worldwide study of graduate students, women value salaries and promotions below professional development opportunities, company culture, work-life balance, and flexible work hours.

The women who fought for equality of opportunity generations ago got us to this point. The Reece Witherspoon’s of the world are creating new opportunities for us as well.

As we embark on National Women’s History month in March, we can be optimistic that opportunity for young women is abundant, but nothing can be achieved without determination, agency, and trade-offs. We’ll chose what we study and what jobs we pursue. We’ll choose whether to maintain uninterrupted working years or step away to have kids. We choose whether to commit to working long hours in the office that better position us for promotions or opt for flexible work schedules.

The power of progress is that we both choice and control over our careers. As Witherspoon said, instead of “complaining” we can get to “doing” to make things better for women next in line.

Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee is senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum and national spokeswoman for Generation Opportunity.