A few years ago, I had the tremendous opportunity to participate as a panelist on the “Diversity: Becoming a Powerful Champion for Other Women” panel at the Network of Executive Women’s Executive Leaders Forum in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. I was honored to have been in the company of three inspiring women: Robin Ely, Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community, Harvard Business School; Sandra Finley, President, League of Black Women; and Lisbeth McNabb, CEO and Founder of w2wlink.
The objective of this panel was to discuss how women of different races, generations and ethnicities can become champions, advocates and sponsors for other women in the workplace when the unfortunate reality is that they can also be one another’s biggest roadblocks to success. We wanted to take the audience on a journey to understanding what it takes to develop more supportive relationships by providing four different viewpoints on the unique challenges faced by women of different backgrounds.
By design, this topic wasn’t going to leave attendees walking away with the warm and fuzzies, but rather with a sense of urgency to drive change – within themselves and their organizations. Our plan as panelists to elicit this response was to lay it all out on the table – no beating around the bush, no skirting the issue – with full understanding that the audience may feel more than a little uncomfortable during this 90-minute journey. Our request to the audience: hold the mirror up to yourself and recognize that what works/has worked for you may not work for other women who look different than the reflection in the mirror.
As the resident millennial, my role on the panel was to represent the perspective of the millennial generation (those of us born after 1980) by sharing my story and thoughts on a path forward to supporting other women.
I’m sure you’ve read about us millennials. Depending on which publication you pick up on what day, millennials are either the laziest, most entitled generation….or the most ambitious, career-driven generation. Regardless of this diversity of opinion, new research from Bentley University reveals key insights into the millennial point of view that have the potential to help build us better workplaces – and better relationships within those workplaces.
My story is surely similar to other millennials out there. I was incredibly fortunate to have grown up in a household where my father and my mother worked two jobs each at any given time to give me, my sister and brother the opportunities that we’ve had since birth. What my parents really gave us was the freedom of choice – choices in what sports and musical instruments we wanted to play, what field trips we wanted to go on, what colleges we wanted to attend. The ability to create our own paths.
This concept of creating one’s own path is at the core of how millennials approach their lives. Additionally, there are three key research insights that bring more clarity to the millennial mindset:
- Milliennials are not willing to sacrifice their personal and family values to get ahead in their careers. Yes, they want to work hard and be successful, but they’re not willing to set their values aside to do so.
- Millennials want to work for organizations that provide different paths to leadership that accommodate these values. When they find an organization that fits the bill, they will be loyal employees.
- Men and women millennials are thinking more alike than any generation before them. The once-gaping gender gap is starting to close slightly, as the wants and needs of both genders are becoming more similar.
As a millennial by definition, one of the most momentous experiences that shaped my perspective began when I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college. I had the opportunity to help a former news anchor start up her own executive coaching firm – in the basement of her house at the time. I worked at this firm three days a week until I graduated, when I joined full-time and spent two years there. In those five short years, I learned a great deal – about running a business, marketing and how the business world operated.
But in those five years, I also learned of the challenges my boss faced as a woman who rose through the ranks from a reporter to a news anchor in a very male-dominated field – all while marrying, having a child and becoming a single mother. To have had this incredible woman and her experiences as my first mentor significantly shaped the way I have looked at and approached my life. And I say “life,” not “career,” purposefully – because to me, it is one in the same. It’s all life.
I believe the millennial generation has had the opportunity unlike any other generation to have learned from – and in some cases witnessed – what our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, etc. of generations before us went through. And, just as in my experience, this has greatly shaped and impacted how this generation approaches life.
While we weren’t there in the trenches with them, we recognize the sacrifices that were made by previous generations of women to lay the foundation that we’re privileged to be able to build upon today. And for that, we’re grateful. As Anne-Marie Slaughter says in her wildly popular article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, a different kind of conversation is now possible. It is up to the millennial generation to keep propelling it forward.
There have been claims that the millennial generation will drive the new era of corporate America, one where more women – across races, generations and ethnicities – have more seats at the table. I hope these claims come true. I’m certainly committed to doing my part. In the meantime, one of the ways we can start making incremental changes is by building better relationships that will allow us to build better workplaces where women – and men – can thrive in a sustainable way.