"Educate Women; Change the World" at Ewha Womans University

Ewha Womans University, Seoul, South Korea

I am deeply honored to be an Ewha Fellow.  Thank you so much.  Thank you, Chairperson Chang, President Kim; thank you students, faculty, friends of Ewha, distinguished guests, Mr. Ambassador and others.  It is a great privilege to be here on the Ewha campus, the largest women’s university in the world.

As I crossed the paths and open green space above your spectacular campus complex, I was reminded of the moment when novelist Virginia Woolf, in her essay “Shakespeare’s Sister,” wanders onto an open grass plot at an Oxbridge college, lost in the excitement of a new idea.  Suddenly a man, expressing, as Woolf put it, “horror and indignation,” waves her off, protecting the “turf” where only “fellows and scholars,” she said, were allowed to walk.  Those fellows and scholars did not include women.  Well, guess what.  Here we are.

I graduated  — a long time ago now — from Bryn Mawr, a women’s college founded just one year before Ewha in 1885.  I am delighted to say Bryn Mawr now has close ties here, providing for student faculty exchanges, and perhaps there are even some of those Bryn Mawr College faculty or students with us today?

Looking back on my student days, I now see that I did not fully appreciate the significance of the big central green space that we women lived and studied around in a kind of democratic village.  Virginia Woolf wrote of the necessity for women of a “room of one’s own”; we at Bryn Mawr had been given even more than that — a college of our own.  I have come to understand how that physical and intellectual space has enabled Bryn Mawr and Ewha and the many institutions like them to change the world by transforming the minds and the lives of women through the power of education. Bryn Mawr became the first American women’s college to offer graduate and undergraduate programs comparable to those available to men. Similarly, Ewha has broken ground for Korean women in almost every field — medicine, law, science, music, journalism.  We can count the number of Ewha alumni — now an extraordinary 180,000 — but who can measure their cultural impact, or their crucial role in the political and economic transformation of Korea, whose first female prime minister was an Ewha graduate.  She paved the way for — just last month — Korea’s first female president.  I trust my country is taking note.

Opening up that turf of fellows and scholars, as Virginia Woolf described it — the space for education and opportunity in the lives of women and girls — is what I would like to talk about for a few minutes today. 

It is with considerable humility that I raise this subject here, in the Republic of Korea, at Ewha Womans University, standing at the center of perhaps the most rapid and successful embrace of universal education, including female education, that the world has ever seen.  The drive for education that animates your country, as one scholar put it, is nothing less than a “life force” that has powered an extraordinary democracy and economy.  Yet how we define success in the education of women, whether in the United States or Korea or worldwide, remains an open and pressing question. Dramatic gender gaps persist. No society, no nation, has fully freed us from the question, “Why educate women?”  I would like to suggest three answers.

We educate women, first, because it is fair — a level field as we aspire to include women as full and equal participants in society.  We educate women also because it is smart — women are one-half of our human resources, and we increasingly see the beneficial effects of educated women in all realms of life and in all parts of the world.  Finally, we educate women because it is transformative.  Education doesn’t just boost incomes and economies, it elevates us, defusing differences, opening common ground, and making the most of all our human capacities.

First, we educate women because it is fair.  We all know stories — our own, and others’ — of girls and women longing for education against great odds.  The stories of their lives have shaped our own. 

Korean girls in the nineteenth-century, as one of Ewha’s early graduates described it, would “st[eal] their education,” listening from behind a screen as teachers gave lessons to boys, teaching themselves to read and write.  One girl remembered hiding her books and suffering punishment when she got caught.  But these brave and curious young women never gave up.

M. Carey Thomas, the first female president of my alma mater Bryn Mawr, wrote at age eighteen of her torment as she observed, and I quote, “thousands of boys enjoying and often throwing away the chances I would give anything for … How unjust — how narrow minded … to deny that women ought to be educated and worse … to deny that they have equal powers of mind.” She eventually left the United States for Germany, after an American university denied her a doctoral degree.  And she earned the first female Ph.D. at the University of Zurich in 1882, which she received summa cum laude, an honor rarely awarded even to men.

My own role models began with my grandmothers — powerful and charming women who directed their worlds with a kind of graceful authority. My father’s mother in particular wielded an iron fist in a velvet glove; she was a consummate example of what is known in the American South as a Steel Magnolia.  Family legend recounted a story of how she once decided to return to Virginia, where she lived and where I grew up, a day early from a visit to New York.  She was going to arrive first thing in the morning on an overnight train.  My grandfather, not expecting her, was still engaged in an all-night — perhaps multiple night — card game in the parlor.  It was 6 in the morning, and my grandfather’s terrified associates were grabbing their hats, leaping from every back door and window in the house as my grandmother approached down the long drive.  I never doubted who really ran the place.

At age 13 I found myself in the magnetic aura of another powerful female — the headmistress of my all-girls school in Massachusetts.  Her burning curiosity about governments and societies prompted her to enter Radcliffe College at age 32 with four young children and a husband away at war, and she graduated with honors in four years.  She was a force of nature for all of us girls who watched her lead our school.  She would sweep across our small campus followed by a trail of pet dogs, wearing pearls one day and driving a tractor the next, exhorting us to tackle the big questions and think for ourselves.  She influenced me enormously.

When I got to Bryn Mawr our president, Katharine McBride, a neurologist and a formidable woman, impressed on us that we should be humble in the face of what she called “our work.”  The notion that my papers and exams might be the work of learning and scholarship, filled me with reverence and awe.  Suddenly I wanted to be worthy of the sacred and timeless world of knowledge.  It is a feeling that has never left me and is probably why I am standing here today.

We all have known such women, who let us see around a corner to open new ground and breathe in a new possibility.  Even when my mother warned me, as she frequently did, that, “It’s a man’s world, sweetie,” I could hear the sound of her own longings and the kind of secret call to pursue my own.

When I became president of Harvard, I received an outpouring of messages from girls and women all over the world, confiding in me their aspirations, confessing their difficulties, and telling me how inspiring it was that a woman could become president of Harvard.  Just last month a young woman named Yvonne, who called herself a “budding researcher,” emailed from Ghana to tell me that she had just discovered on Yahoo that the president of Harvard was a woman, and she was now inspired to work hard despite what she called “all the obstacles … ever present in my part of the world.”

According to UNESCO’s 2012 Education For All report, 66 million girls worldwide are being kept out of school — by poverty, by natural disasters, by forced labor, by restrictive governments.  Sixty-eight countries have not achieved gender parity in primary education, and in 60 of them the disadvantaged children are girls.

For daring to attend school, thousands of girls in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India face shootings, poisonings, and acid attacks.  Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, was shot in the head by the Taliban last October after speaking out for the education of girls.  She galvanized worldwide action. Now recovering from her wounds, and as I understand it, today returning to school for the first time, Malala is already repeating her wish, and I quote her, for “every girl, every child, to be educated,” and she says, “I would sacrifice myself again.”

We hope she will not need to. We must work to ensure that she will not need to. Efforts to educate girls have made enormous progress in many parts of the world.  For more than 90 percent of the world’s population, the gender gap in educational attainment is now less than 8 percent, according to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report.  The growing experiment in Massive Open Online Courses — MOOCs — has opened a new world of learning to more than 6 million students, and is connecting them with each other across barriers of nationality, age, religion, race, and gender.

Khadijah Niazi, an 11-year-old Pakistani girl, was working on question 6 of the final exam of a college-level physics course on YouTube last fall when her government shut down YouTube access. With the help of online classmates in Malaysia, England, and Portugal, Khadijah regained access to the exam and passed with highest distinction, the youngest girl ever to complete the course.  She posted the word “Yayyy,” spelled with 43 “y’s” at the end, and she now plans to become a physicist.

Educating girls and women is not only fair — it is increasingly smart.  The social and economic benefits of female education are dramatic, and well documented. 

Greater female education boosts agricultural production in developing countries and improves human health.  In our knowledge-based economy, female talent raises corporate profits and national gross domestic products. 

A recent World Bank report calls it “the girl effect dividend,” and concludes, for example, that in Kenya, educating the nation’s 1.6 million adolescent girls, including employing those who become adolescent mothers, could add $3.4 billion U.S. dollars to the nation’s gross income every year. 

The most valuable resource in the world is human talent.  Unleashing that talent is one of society’s greatest challenges.  A growing body of analysis shows that for all kinds of reasons, any society that leaves out the wide talent pool of females is undermining its effectiveness — whether it loses the benefits of balance in corporate leadership roles, or the superior creativity and problem-solving capacities of diverse working teams.  The gender dividend is more than diversity for diversity’s sake.  It defines success not only by what is fair, but by what is effective.  As Boris Groysberg at Harvard Business School observes, and I quote, “There is a big difference between diversity and inclusiveness.  Diversity is about counting the numbers; inclusiveness is about making the numbers count.”  Every nation’s long-term competitiveness depends on how well it educates and brings into play its women and girls. 

Imagining the world without female achievements is increasingly difficult, in every field.  And yet much of this talent goes untapped.

A recent analysis of nearly 2,400 companies worldwide by the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that corporations with female board members routinely outperform those without women on the board.  And yet we are failing again and again to take full advantage of female leadership. At Fortune 500 companies, only 4 percent of CEOs are female.  The number of women on corporate boards worldwide is just above 10 percent, and just 1.9 percent in South Korea.

Women worldwide are also underrepresented in the critical realm of politics.  They make up just 20 percent of parliaments — our United States Senate attained a 20 percent female representation just this year.  In 2012, women held only 17 percent of the world’s ministerial positions and served as heads of state in only 11 percent of the world’s 197 self-governing countries.  Yet there are strong indications that women make a real difference when they assume governmental responsibilities.  A study of female legislators in India’s state governments suggests that “women legislators make different decisions than males”; they are more likely to support community development, public health, and education.

Female students have begun to outpace their male counterparts in schools worldwide, and increasingly they contribute in the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math.  Ewha, again, has been path-breaking in these fields, establishing the world’s first women’s college of engineering.  You are part of the reason that that the percentage of South Korea’s women employed with science-related higher education degrees is nearly double the average of OECD countries.

Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who won a 2012 Fundamental Physics Foundation prize, led the international research team that detected the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle that recently confirmed the standard model of physics.  Her love of philosophy in high school led her to the big questions that she is still trying to answer.  She manages 3,000 scientists in a worldwide collaboration, and — because she likes to work with her hands — she helped design the equipment that can detect a particle moving close to the speed of light.  Yet the number of female physicists is low worldwide. In the United States, women comprise only 12 percent of physics departments, and in all academic fields women are just 26 percent of full professors and 23 percent of university presidents in the United States, even though women earn more than half of all bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in my country.

These numbers count.  Let me give a startling glimpse of the economic costs.  According to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, reducing the male-female employment gap in developed countries would boost the gross domestic product by as much as 9 percent in the United States, 13 percent in the Euro Zone.  In Asia and the nations of the Pacific, limited job opportunities for women are costing, according to this report, between $42 and $46 billion a year in American dollars.  As I am sure you know, the Republic of Korea, with the most powerful women’s university in history, has the largest gender gap in the developed world, especially for women with tertiary degrees.

The challenge is not only to educate females, but to create opportunities for their skills and talents to help build better and more prosperous societies to improve everyone’s lives as we improve women’s lives.  Accomplishing this is not easy.  My Harvard colleague, psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, has shown in her research the continuing power of what she calls “implicit bias”: deeply ingrained assumptions about women and their appropriate roles that can lead even the CEO who believes he is without prejudice to bypass an outstanding female job candidate.  Or “implicit bias,” Mahzarin Banaji argues, can even influence a rising female star to hold herself back in the boardroom.  We can reshape these assumptions and attitudes — through awareness, through more inclusive policies, and by changing the public conversation.  Facebook COO and Harvard alum Sheryl Sandberg has ignited discussion, across America and internationally, with her new book subtitled “women, work, and the will to lead.” We must do more to make sure these issues are a critical part of the agenda for all of us as we seek to build a future that engages everyone’s talents.

Finally, we educate women not just because it is fair and efficient; we educate women because it is transformative.

The purposes of learning extend beyond quarterly reports and the bottom line, and even the economic and social benefits of a good job or a rising GDP.  The purposes lie in the curiosity and the longing of the girl I described reading her hidden books.  They lie in Miss McBride’s world of humility and wonder, in physicist Fabiola Gianotti’s passion for the big questions. Education creates a realm of larger awareness and greater humanity, beyond student test scores and beyond larger paychecks. In America and in Korea alike, our zeal for achievement, what you call “education fever,” can distort the deeper purposes of learning and narrow our definitions of success. What does it mean when students here in the eighth grade who score among the highest in the world on standardized math and science tests, also score lowest in the world in their liking for math and science?  What happens to the bigger questions? 

When education becomes too focused on immediate measurable outcomes, on grades and awards, or when it becomes merely a path to money or prestige, we risk forgetting the inherent value of learning and of our broader aspirations.  Educated women change not just their own lives, and work not just for their own success, but for the world.  We see countless examples.

Choi Yoo-sun, an Ewha student, called for equal educational opportunity across the globe in 2007, then as the youngest panelist ever to debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Fatou Bensouda, now chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, at age 11 in Gambia took a female relative being repeatedly beaten by her husband to the police to file a complaint.  When the officers told them to go home, she remembers saying, “there is something that I should be able to do.”  She went on to law school, became Gambia’s justice minister, and now as chief prosecutor is perhaps the world’s most prominent advocate for victims of crimes against humanity.

Shin Kyung-sook, a farmer’s daughter who left home at 16 to work in an electronics plant and put herself through night school, last March became the first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize for her novel, “Please Look After Mom.  Her book, exploring women’s roles, is an international bestseller.  Of the missing mother in the novel, Shin observes, “It doesn’t have to be the mom who disappears; it could be anything precious to us that has been lost, as we’ve moved from a traditional society to a modern society.” 

These are extraordinary cases.  Each woman deserves to choose her own path, as she responds to many longings — for a just world, for a breakthrough discovery, for a happy family, for a rewarding career, for a life well lived. 

Ch’on Yang-hui, an Ewha graduate who has won Korea’s most prestigious awards for literature and poetry, describes a moment standing in a field, curling her toes in the grass, in a poem called “Mowing Day.”  The sky, she says, is “ever above.”  Others warn her the grass can cut her.  But she knows that beneath her she is, as she says, “kept alive” by “composted leaves, by nameless sprouting weeds,” the “undergrowth” that settles in her heart until she herself is transformed in the poem’s last three lines:

Large as a sprouting plant, a life stirs. 
Hold on to me, grass. 
I will draw you with me as I rise.

What was the point, after all, of Virginia Woolf’s idyll on the open lawn?  It was, as she put it, the “freedom to think of things in themselves.”  She sought a freedom that would give her, in her words, “a view of the open sky.”  The ancient Chinese Proverb that “women hold up half the sky” has become an inspiring catchphrase for female opportunity around the world, and it is the title of a wonderful book about women’s lives by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  But I want to ask:  Why divide the sky?  Why not a view of the open sky for every human being?

Ewha was established to make not only better women, but, in its founder’s words, “better Koreans” for “Korean possibilities,” and now, in President Kim’s words, to “serve … the world” through its “sharing and service … compassion and justice.”  It is an aspiration I know she shares with the students and faculty of this remarkable university.

As I crossed the green at Bryn Mawr as an undergraduate, I had no inkling I would one day be a university president.  But the idea of a female leader seemed natural to me, because of all the women before me who had dared to lead.

We stir that daring, so alive here at Ewha, through what I believe you call “jeong” — in its most positive meaning — in the kindred feeling of women’s education, and in the common humanity that binds us all in mind, and heart, and spirit. 

Thank you.