Speaking at the 2018 annual United State of Women conference, Michelle Obama opened up about leadership, parenting, and — perhaps most notable — failure.
The former first lady grabbed headlines during her 40-minute discussion with actress Tracee Ellis Ross for her comments about the 2016 election:
"When the most qualified person running was a woman, and look what we did instead, I mean that says something about where we are. That's what we have to explore, because if we as women are still suspicious of one another, if we still have this crazy, crazy bar for each other that we don't have for men, if we're not comfortable with the notion that a woman could be our president compared to, what, then we have to have those conversations with ourselves as women."
A number of news outlets framed her comments as sour grapes, with Fox News' sneering headline, "Michelle Obama still questioning why women voted for Trump in 2016" and The Hill singling her out by saying "we let that happen." Beyond the election comments, however, there was an important bit of commentary more people really should hear.
Michelle Obama speaks at the 2018 United State of Women Summit. Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images.
To fail is to learn and grow. Too often, Obama says, women aren't given that chance.
"I wish that girls could fail as bad as men do, and be OK," she said at one point during the discussion. "Watching men fail up — it is frustrating. It's frustrating to see a lot of men blow it and win. And we hold ourselves to these crazy, crazy standards. We hold each other to these standards."
GIFs from United State of Women/YouTube.
Obama continues by urging women and men to take chances for the sake of a better world, pushing back on this sort of utopian view of society and urging people to take a realistic look at where things really stand right now.
"I think if we want our daughters to dream bigger than we did, then we have more work to do," she said. "I think so many of us have gotten ourselves at the table, but we're still too grateful to be at the table to really shake it up. ... Just holding onto our seats at the table won't be enough to help our girls be all that they could be. I think it's going to be on us as women, but men have an important role to play in that as well."
Statistically speaking, in the professional world, men are given second chances that women simply aren't.
A 2017 Stanford University and University of Chicago study looked at gender disparities in the financial industry. What researchers found was pretty troubling: Men were three times as likely to get caught engaging in some sort of professional misconduct like negligence or fraud. And even though men's mistakes were, on average, more costly to firms and male offenders were more likely to slip up again than their female counterparts, women were more likely than men to actually lose their jobs in the event of a mistake.
Following up on the study, The Washington Post learned that men who did lose their jobs over mistakes or misconduct were more likely to find new jobs in the field compared with women who lost their jobs over a mistake.
In other words, women have less room for error compared to men. Researchers suggest that this could be the result of what they call "in-group tolerance," the tendency to provide people of the same gender, race, religion, or other community factor with preferential treatment. In-group tolerance could partially account for why so many male-dominated fields remain male-dominated even as efforts to recruit women ramp up.
Obama and Tracee Ellis Ross speak at the United State of Women. Photo by Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images.
Obama isn't encouraging a "woe is me" attitude toward the world but rather one that puts work into addressing the problems as they exist.
Because it's not about her or Hillary Clinton; it's not even necessarily about politics. It's about creating a world in which we can encourage our children to dream big and be whatever they want to be — and have it be a realistic aspiration. That means getting our hands dirty now, taking risks, and fighting injustice and inequality wherever it is.
Watch the discussion from the United State of Women conference below.