For many Millennial women, the bigger workplace challenge occurs after they find jobs, when they try to progress in their careers.
What I’ve heard from my female friends is that, after a few years on the job, they’re noticing that Millennial men who started at the same time as they did are being promoted more quickly. These are women with the same level of education as their male counterparts, who have received more positive performance reviews.
Experiences like these are not widely publicized in the media, but they are common. As I wrote in a report for The Conference Board of Canada, Millennial women are not making it to the senior levels of organizations in as high proportions as Millennial men, just like generations of women before them.
Obviously, the reasons for this are complex. Two cultural shifts specific to the Millennial generation make this issue particularly thorny to address.
First, our society has become more egalitarian and politically correct over the decades. This does not mean, however, that gender stereotypes no longer exist. Rather, they have gone underground, making them more difficult to address.
Modern prejudice is often unconscious. We humans are biologically predisposed by necessity to make hundreds of split-second decisions a day, about what seems safe, competent, and likeable. This survival mechanism can lead to decision-making that favours some groups over others.
Psychologists have found that women are often linked to the home, and men thought of as managers. In the workplace, this translates into both genders unconsciously doubting the leadership ability and readiness of women - particularly younger women. Doubt over the competency of all younger workers exists, but being female exacerbates this age bias.
This unconscious bias against younger women leads organizations to limit their access to key developmental roles that lead to advancement opportunities. Ironically, managers who believe they are gender-blind and meritocratic actually show more favouritism towards men. When people think they are unbiased, they become more confident in their beliefs, including their biased beliefs. In our politically correct society, we assume that “good” people are not biased. The reality is that virtually everyone holds unconscious stereotypes about everything from race and gender to age (test for yourself!).
A second issue is that younger women are more likely than older generations to feel that feminism is irrelevant because gender equality has been achieved. Rather than suspecting discrimination, these women, who outnumber men in attaining university degrees, may blame themselves when they see male peers that are paid more and promoted faster. This undermines their self-confidence and leads them to lower their career ambitions. One study found that, over a two year period, as younger women realized they were not advancing as quickly as their male peers, the percentage of them who believed they could not reach leadership ranks grew much faster than young men.
Given our aging population, Canadian organizations will need all hands on deck to compete effectively in the global economy. Yet, employers are underestimating the leadership potential of younger women, who are in turn lowering their career advancement goals. This is bad for both Millennial women and their organizations.
But there are ways to tackle these biases.
Last December, 23-year-old NDP MP Charmaine Borg filed a formal complaint against 63-year-old Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais for describing her as whiny, ignorant, and useless. Borg believes that it is these types of statements that discourage young women from entering politics. She noted that, “The overall tone of [Senator Dagenais’] letter suggests that I am simply a little girl who does not take her work seriously.”
There are things employers can do too, such as providing ‘unconscious bias’ training for all managers, making the promotions process more objective and open, and coaching women to better advocate for themselves and take more risks.
Changing mindsets is difficult, but I’m reassuring my female Millennial friends that it can be done.
Naoko Hawkins, PhD, is a Research Associate/Network Manager at The Conference Board of Canada, an independent, not-for-profit applied research organization dedicated to building a better future for Canadians by making our economy and society more dynamic and competitive. She lives in Ottawa.