By Deb Pine, Executive Director, Center for Women and Business at Bentley University
By now most of us are familiar with the numbers—some promising, some less so—around workplace diversity and women’s advancement.
On the one hand, we’re making progress: women are graduating from college in higher numbers than their male peers, and PEW research shows that millennial women’s hourly earnings are now 93 percent that of men’s as compared to only 84 percent for all women compared to men. Yet we can’t deny that improvement has been glacial at times and that we’ve even lost ground in some places, like the number of CEOs in the S&P 500 declining from a paltry 25 in 2014 to a dismal 21 in 2015.
But enough rehashing of the data—it’s time to look forward, specifically to the 155 million millennials and Gen Zs, who I believe will be both the primary catalysts and greatest beneficiaries of upcoming positive change in workplace culture, diversity and gender parity.
Why younger generations can be agents of workplace change
First, take millennials, those born from roughly the 80s through mid-90s. They now comprise the majority of the workforce in the US, so their impact is significant based on numbers alone. This technologically sophisticated generation is much more ethnically and racially diverse than its predecessors. Often they have been raised in dual income or single parent families, and so their expectations about the way a workplace should look, feel and operate can be quite different from those of Gen Xers. They not only look for jobs that best fit their values and lifestyle, but they have no qualms about leaving if they are displeased.
Gen Zs, born roughly from the late 90s through 2012, will comprise a fifth of the workforce in five years and are the first generation of digital natives with no memory of an “unwired” world. While there is a great deal we still don’t know about this group, it appears that growing up during the Great Recession has infused Gen Zs with a good deal of insecurity about life and their future.
What we can do to help
Together, millennials and Gen Z are poised to make a true difference, and we, as experienced women leaders, educators and mentors, have an obligation to proactively teach and support these younger generations. Here are three steps we can take:
Educate young people. Introduce women and men to issues like unconscious bias, the benefits of diverse workplaces and essential skills while they are still in college. At the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University, for example, we give women the tools to overcome confidence gaps, improve negotiating skills and learn critical leadership skills by providing a student fellowship, offering a women’s leadership program and supporting “Men of Alliance,” a campus group of male advocates for women. We believe that teaching young men how to actively advocate on behalf of women and all minorities is critical. Another great example is the MA Conference for Women’s “Young Women’s Program,” which provides high school girls with the opportunity to attend the Conference and participate in a seminar track designed especially for them.
Support this generation in the workplace. Despite notions that millennials and Gen Zs hold dramatically different attitudes towards work and career than their predecessors, the data shows that they are motivated by surprisingly similar factors: growth opportunities, jobs that fit their unique talents, supportive environments and good managers. Targeted training programs for women like those so many companies are now holding either in-house, via their employee resource groups, or through external conferences (such as the Simmons Leadership Conference, Harvard’s Dynamic Women and Business Conference and Bentley University’s skills-based Gearing Up Conference for women in the first decade of their careers) can make a real difference.
Be a role model for young women. Mentor them, sponsor them and actively advocate for them. Doing so may finally bring about the changes that have eluded so many of us who are in our 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond and have lived and breathed these issues for decades.