In my lifetime, I want to see the US elect a woman president. I want to see more women CEOs in top companies. I want female leaders to reach parity in the upper levels of both business and government. But I’ll be honest: You couldn’t pay me enough to be one of those women.
In college, I seriously considered two paths: professional writer and lawyer. The pay is certainly better for the latter, but succeeding in that profession would have required working 80-hour weeks, being an underling until I made partner, and basically giving up control of how I spent the first decade of my career. And that just wasn’t for me.
Of all the generalizations that have been used to describe my generation, the one that pops up most frequently is “entitled.” The argument goes: While Millennials are hard workers and creative thinkers, we don’t want to “pay our dues” before insisting on such privileges as flexible schedules, work/life balance, and projects we feel passionate about.
I used to take offense to the word “entitled,” which makes us sound bratty and self-important. But over the years, I’ve come to embrace this characterization. I do feel entitled—to have both a successful career and rewarding family life, to have some input about my own schedule, to figure out the best ways to get my work done. And I can’t understand why previous generations didn’t feel exactly the same way. After all, as Bon Jovi so aptly put it, “It’s my life.”
Right or wrong, this is how many Millennials feel. We’re less concerned with power as we are with purpose. We prioritize work/life balance and a sense of well-being over traditional definitions of success. Of course, these are also generalizations. There are certainly some go-getters among us who will happily put in the time and pay the necessary dues to climb the corporate ladder. I respect, admire, and genuinely appreciate their dedication. But research shows they’re outnumbered by those of us who aren’t willing to make the sacrifices that are currently expected on the path to the C-suite.
This is a big problem for corporate America.
Finally having realized the business value of gender parity, companies spend plenty of time talking about the importance of hiring and retaining more women. At the same time, they’re losing many of their best and brightest up-and-comers to entrepreneurship, freelance work, and stay-at-home parenthood.
So, where’s the disconnect, and what can companies do about it?
In 2003, Lisa Belkin sparked a national controversy among women with her New York Times article, “The Opt-Out Revolution,” which reported on the astounding number of Ivy League-trained women lawyers and business professionals who opted out of the career fast track, choosing instead to take the mommy track.
When I began working for a women’s business magazine two years later, the debate was still going strong. One camp said women who throw away successful careers to care for children are hurting other women by reinforcing employer fears about promoting women who will just leave to have babies, and that these women are basically turning their backs on generations of feminists who fought long and hard to get women out of the secretarial pool and into leadership roles. The other camp insisted it’s every woman’s right to choose the life she wants—that choice is what feminism is all about—and it’s really no one else’s business.
A decade later, the debate was resurrected via Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Facebook COO Sandberg tells women to “lean in” and overcome stereotypes to work their way to the top. She admits this is difficult, especially for mothers, and offers great tips for being successful at both.
Meanwhile, Slaughter, a Princeton professor who left a senior leadership role on Hillary Clinton’s staff to be with her struggling teenage child, says we’re fooling ourselves and that “the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.”
All of these smart, passionate women make great points. And they’re all, to some degree, completely right. But there’s one little problem: While older generations argue about whether women can or can’t have it all, Millennial women aren’t even sure we want it all.
We watched our mothers struggle to balance work and life, and many of us don’t want that kind of stress. My own mother, a 30-something divorcee with two young daughters to support, didn’t have any choice but to work. She graduated from a competitive, accelerated nursing program (with honors) and has served in several leadership roles throughout her career. At the same time, she nurtured her children and attended more of our school events than she missed. In my mind, she was—and still is—a rockstar. I’m proud of her, appreciate her, and never once felt neglected.
But while I remember all the times she was there, she remembers all the times she wasn’t. She also spent much of her 30s and 40s stressed out from the demands of working 12-hour shifts while trying to be a good mother. At the end of the day, she didn’t want “it all;” she would have preferred just to be home with us.
I, for one, want some of each. I love my work, put in long hours, and want to continue doing it. I also want to be home with my future children. And as a freelance writer, I’ve arranged my life where that’s possible.
But I’ll never be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I’ll probably never be a corporate officer or board member who spurs business transformation. And neither will many of my peers, not unless things change.
Slaughter addresses this reality in her Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She writes about the first time she admitted to a group of young people that juggling high-level government work and parenthood had become impossible for her. Where her peers had judged her for stepping down, several of these Millennial women thanked her for “not giving just one more fatuous ‘You can have it all’ talk.” After this experience, Slaughter came to a profound conclusion.
Just about all of the women in that room planned to combine careers and family in some way. But almost all assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make.
The striking gap between the responses I heard from those young women (and others like them) and the responses I heard from my peers and associates prompted me to write this article. Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.
She’s absolutely right. It is time to talk, not just about success strategies for female leaders (which is an admittedly important topic), but also about the business transformation that needs to happen so women want to be at the top.
One thing is for sure: Most Millennial women don’t want to be told what to do or how to live our lives. So unless companies make some big changes, they risk losing talented young women—the very people they say they want to hire—to entrepreneurship, stay-at-home-motherhood, or other roles where we have more control over our own lives and schedules.
This does not mean Millennial women aren’t ambitious or confident that we have what it takes to rise up the ranks. In fact, a recent PWC study found that among Millennial “career starters” (those fresh out of college) 49 percent “feel they will be able to rise to the most senior levels with their current employer,” making them more confident than women in previous generations. But after a little time in what is still a male-dominated workforce, that confidence level starts to drop. Among “career developers” (those with four to eight years of work experience), 45 percent agree with the same statement. And only 39 percent of “career establishers” (those with nine or more years under their belts) still feel confident about advancement.
So, what do companies need to do to attract, retain, and develop these younger workers? Focus on providing what Millennial women really want from work.
Along with competitive wages, which 52 percent of PWC respondents note as important, and good benefits packages, there are four key areas where business transformation must happen:
The Millennial generation cares about equality and diversity. This is particularly important to budding female leaders, 86 percent of whom consider an employer’s policy on diversity, equality, and workforce inclusion to be an important factor when deciding whether to work for that company. However, young women feel companies are falling short of this expectation; 71 percent agree that while most companies pay lip-service to diversity, opportunities are not truly equal for everyone.
To compete for female talent, companies must do more than talk about how much diversity matters. They must prove it by providing equal opportunities and ensuring there are top women leaders within the organization who can serve as role models, advocates, and proof that Millennial women stand a fighting chance.
As Slaughter puts it:
The best hope for improving the lot of all women…is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.
Work/life balance is equally important to young workers of both genders, with 97 percent of female Millennials saying balance matters. In fact, women ranked availability of flexible work arrangements as the third-most attractive employer trait, after opportunities for career progression and competitive wages. Yet, 44 percent of female Millennials and 49 percent of male Millennials believe taking advantage of flexibility options has negative consequences at their workplace.
Until that perception changes, individuals who want to get promoted will be afraid to utilize flexibility programs. Offering flex-time or work-from-home options is an important first step, but creating a culture where it’s OK to take advantage of these policies is equally important. By encouraging individuals from all ranks—including senior leaders—to demonstrate good work/life balance, companies send the message that performance, not physical presence, is what gets rewarded.
Twenty-one percent of Millennial women have left jobs that didn’t offer enough opportunities for learning and career development. Among those who have their sights set on top leadership positions, that number is probably much higher. For these women, jobs aren’t just about making rent. (In a pinch, our generation is known for having no shame about moving back home with Mom and Dad.) Instead, even entry-level jobs are considered stepping stones to bigger and better things. So, if ambitious young women don’t feel like they’re getting what they need to grow into the careers they want, they’ll find a company where they can.
Simply put: If a company isn’t investing in its female talent, those workers won’t invest much time in the company.
The Millennial generation is made up of passionate idealists. We don’t just want jobs; we want to make a difference, to contribute to the world, and to be proud of not only our work, but also our employers. Fifty-seven percent of female Millennials say they would avoid working in a particular industry solely because they believe it has a negative image.
Companies already know that reputation and image matter to customers, but having a strong values-based brand is also key to attracting top Millennial talent. This means companies must not only communicate strong values and an inspirational vision; they must prove it with their actions and decision-making.
Bottom line: When it comes to gender equity in the workplace, much of the responsibility falls on young women—to defy stereotypes, pursue opportunities, find mentors, ask for what they want and need at work, and generally prove they have what it takes to succeed. But if companies aren’t willing to meet them halfway—to create work environments where women feel supported and capable of rising up the ranks—a generation of women known for its creativity, innovation, and tech savvy will find other ways to use those skills.
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