About a million American women will graduate from college this spring, and together they will earn about 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded. Their accomplishments are themselves a tribute to how much progress women have made in recent decades.  Yet to make the most of the opportunities before them, these women should rethink some of what they’ve learned during college. 

1. Your Employer Probably Won’t Care That You Are Female

During college, students think a lot about their identities as members of groups and as individuals. Students are encouraged to consider how stereotypes impact others’ perceptions of them and may unfairly limit their opportunities.

Yet as you enter what’s commonly called the real world, you are likely to find that these factors play much less of a role than you would expect based on what the professors told you.  Certainly you may run into bad bosses and people with a variety of prejudices.  But most professionals care more about making their businesses and organizations succeed than whether you are male or female.  They want competent workers who do their jobs well. 

In your first job out of college, you most likely will report to someone who has just a few years more experience than you do.  He or she isn’t from a “Mad Men” era; your boss will almost certainly have been educated in the same way that you were and is aware of the unfairness of stereotypes.  Male or female, your bosses are hiring you to make their lives easier and will want you to succeed at your job, so that they can succeed in theirs. 

2. The Choices You Make Will Determine How Much You Earn

You have probably heard that women make less money than men do when working at the same job. Don’t accept or expect this.  Overwhelmingly, the differences in pay that you hear about between men and women are driven by the choices that people make about what careers to pursue, jobs to accept, and how to spend their time—not because of systematic discrimination.

Some of the choices that you have already made impact your earnings potential.  Those who majored in engineering and hard sciences are likely to earn more than the average liberal arts major.  Your college counselors should have discussed this with you, but may not have.  That’s okay, but you should get educated about the potential career paths that are open to you.  You’ll find that some are likely to be much more lucrative than others. 

There are lots of tradeoffs to consider: Jobs and specialties that pay more tend to require more working hours, more travel, and less flexibility than less well-paying jobs.  Think carefully about your options so that you can strike a balance that’s right for you and that will help you meet your career and life goals.

Note that even when education, specialty, number of hours worked and other similar factors are controlled for, a small statistical difference between men and women’s average earnings remains.  Part of that may be due to discrimination, but some have hypothesized that this may reflect women’s greater reluctance to negotiate their salaries and to ask for raises.  This is important to be aware of, because you can do something about it.  Be sure to ask for raises periodically, to entertain counteroffers, and talk to your bosses about your pay to make sure you are being properly valued.  These conversations may seem awkward at first, but they can make a big difference in your long-term earnings. 

3.Make Choices for Yourself, Not As A Representative of Your Sex

During college, women are often encouraged to think of themselves as a part of the larger sisterhood of women working toward greater equality and female achievement.  And, indeed, it is wonderful to consider your story in relation to the women who have come before you:  You have options today that would have been a dream for women just a few generations ago, and it is important to appreciate that legacy.

Sometimes, however, young women are instructed that they have a duty to focus on professional success—particularly matching men in terms of earnings and economic power. 

This is very bad advice.  Just as it was wrong for women to have felt compelled to drop out of the workforce and marry young in an earlier era, you shouldn’t feel it’s your feminist duty to pursue a particular career or life path. 

You are likely to spend a great deal of time working in your chosen field, so you want to make sure that it’s an occupation and in an environment that you ideally will enjoy, or at least can tolerate.  Money and potential economic power are just one factor to consider among many.

You’ve heard that men earn more than women do on average, but you probably haven’t heard as much about the sacrifices men made in order to earn more:  They work in prisons, on fishing boats, in mines and sewers; they drive trucks overnight and take on graveyard shifts because these risky and undesirable jobs pay more.  Women, in contrast, gravitate toward jobs that they find personally fulfilling and allow them to interact with people.  They work in schools, medical facilities, daycare centers, and in offices.  Women, on average, tend to want jobs with more regular hours, less travel, and that are more physically comfortable.   

Neither sexes’ choices are inherently better than the others.  Colleges sometimes imply that our goal should be that 50 percent of all CEOs and truckers are women, and 50 percent of all preschool teachers and beauticians are men. That’s a misguided view of equality.  People deserve equal opportunities, but then to make their own choices freely, and we shouldn’t fixate on how these aggregate statistics come out.  

The proverbial “elephant in the room” for this discussion is children.  Women generally work and earn less when they have children, while men work and earn more after becoming fathers.  It’s interesting to consider why these differences remain and whether they are driven by nature or nurture.  Yet as you make your own plans for the future, you should make the choices that make sense for you.  If children are something you think you’ll eventually want, it’s worth considering how you imagine you’d want to handle those responsibilities.  If you believe you’d like to be able to scale back work when your children are young, you should consider what careers provide the best options. The good news is that the working world is increasingly welcoming to working mothers and there are a growing number of ways to balance career and family responsibilities. 

4. You Won’t Be Able To Have It All

If you haven’t already in college, soon you are likely to be peppered with advice for how to “have it all” – the career of your dreams combined with an ideal personal life, whether that’s with a husband and several children, or as an active athlete, fashion maven, art aficionado, or whatever else you dream of.    

Yet you will soon find that, while you have the potential to achieve most anything you set your mind to, much will have to be sacrificed along the way.  Recognizing the limits of your time is a necessary part of the maturing process.  Right now, my seven-year-old believes that one can be a professional ballerina, astronaut, and a veterinarian.  She’ll soon have to learn that choices must be made. 

You already know this.  You know that when you chose your major, you closed doors to other potential career paths.  This will happen more frequently as you get older.

Certainly, you can combine a successful career with a fulfilling personal life.  And technology has created incredible new options that are allowing more women to blend work and other pursuits, including family and children.  Yet your time is finite.  Hours you spend at your job won’t be time spent preparing for a marathon, painting a masterpiece, or with your new baby.  This is hard because there is so much that one wants to do.  There is no right answer to these difficult considerations, and your preferences for how you want to spend your time will almost certainly evolve as options appear and disappear. Just be prepared that you will have to set priorities for how to use your most precious resource:  your time.   

5. Take Your Personal Life As Seriously As Your Career

Many college students are encouraged to focus on their careers first, and to see marriage and family as an issue for later.  Certainly it’s important to prioritize becoming financially independent and making smart career choices when you are starting out.  Yet your personal life will likely have the greatest impact on your future happiness, and play a big role in your financial and career successes.  It makes sense to take your personal life seriously too. 

If you aspire to get married, you should start considering the people you meet as potential life partners, and be sure to look for someone who is going to share your values and support your life goals.  Sometimes our pop culture implies that you are missing out if you marry young and don’t “sow your wild oats.”  You shouldn’t feel pressure to get married right away, but if you are fortunate enough to find the person you want to spend your life with early, you shouldn’t let this idea that it is better, or more responsible, to wait hold you back.   There are big financial benefits to getting married while young; younger couples are less likely to have fertility problems; and, you will have the opportunity to spend more years living together with someone to love and support you.

6. Beware of How Promises Made To Women By Government Can Backfire

Depending on the types of classes you took during college, you are likely to have heard a lot about what the government should do to help women.  Most colleges and professors tend to have a liberal world view and believe that more government involvement in our lives is the best way to help people.  Hopefully they gave different perspectives about public policy a fair hearing, but many likely encouraged you to think that those who question progressive policies or support conservative principles are part of a “war on women.”

That’s not an accurate representation of the political debate that takes place in the United States.  Those who believe in less government spending and regulation do so because they believe that these policies lead to superior outcomes and help both women and men prosper.  They oppose progressive policies because they think they backfire on people by destroying economic opportunity and leaving us less free and poorer.   

You don’t have to agree with these conclusions or this philosophy, but you ought to consider these arguments on their merits and leave behind the prejudices of so many college professors.  You should also take care to consider the costs when you hear about a new government policy that promises to give women something.  The downsides commonly aren’t mentioned, but are very real.

7. The World Is What You Make Of It

You are bound to face many obstacles as you begin your career and your post-college adult life.  But you have every reason to be optimistic about the future that lies before you.  Simply put, there has never been a better time to be a woman in America.  You have more educational and career opportunities than any generation in history, and today, thanks in large measure to the technological revolution, there are a growing number of work paradigms that will help you achieve and enjoy more both professionally and personally.   

Certainly sexist attitudes still exist, but they are less prevalent today than at any other time, and you will find that the overwhelming majority of the people you encounter reject sexism and want you to succeed.   Congratulations on your achievements to date.  With the right attitude, the best is yet to come.

Carrie Lukas is the Managing Director for Independent Women’s Forum