You’re young, ambitious and have your eyes on the prize of an advanced leadership role.
You may also be feeling stuck or overwhelmed.
You’re not alone. A 2016 American Association of University Women report, “Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership,” found that the lack of women in leadership roles can be explained through structural barriers — and the gender bias that continues to affect them in the workplace. What has been less examined is how these barriers are compounded for younger millennial women who are interested in ascending to leadership roles.
Young women leaders have to constantly manage conflicting perceptions about their identities. We’re burdened with the task of being hardworking and successful employees, while also managing the image that women should be compliant and passive, and dealing with the pressure to prove our skills, experience and authority as millennials.
Here are four challenges and systemic barriers millennial women may be experiencing.
Challenge No. 1: The likability factor
Women have to navigate the fine line of being an authentic and fierce leader and being liked. But both likability and success on the job are pretty hard to achieve. Women are expected to be welcoming, caring and modest — when we encounter women who are direct and authoritative, it is in direct contradiction to what society believes about women. When people violate societal expectations of their behavior, there is often a very negative reaction. If you’re assertive and direct as a young leader, it could be even more of a challenge to get buy-in from people, and you may even have older colleagues challenging your authority and position.
Challenge No. 2: The bar is usually very high for a young woman
Are you juggling multiple responsibilities and projects? Does your workload feel incomparable to the male and older women colleagues in your workplace?
When asked to help with something around the office, women find it more difficult than men to say no, according to a study from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. While women may acknowledge that extra work is impacting their sense of work/life balance, it’s also impacting how their supervisor or colleagues feel about them. I’ve talked to many millennial women in various industries who say that this need to take on more work is even more magnified for them. As millennials, they are managing people’s expectations of their work ethic and oftentimes, their perceptions are not very positive. You tend to believe that if you don’t take on more work, people will infer that you’re lazy and not committed.
Millennials are also delaying marriage and childbirth, and there are a lot of assumptions made about the availability and free time that single people and nonparents have. If people constantly believe you have so much free time, you’ll feel more pressure to take on responsibilities.
Challenge No. 3: The experience conundrum
For millennial women leaders, this is a very complicated problem. Our workforce is highly competitive, and while millennials tend to have high levels of education, they also tend to have a low level of relevant work experience. If you have spent most of your time and effort going to school and earning a credential, it leaves very little time to get the necessary experience for a job after graduation. It’s great that many colleges and universities have added internships or part-time work to degree requirements, but part-time work and internships may be viewed differently than full-time work by many employers. For many millennials, it can be very defeating to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree, but find themselves in an entry-level position with a less than impressive salary. Some supervisors may also view millennials as needing more training or give them less competitive or promotable projects simply because of their age. This may create a situation where young people are doing more of the office grunt work.
It’s even more challenging to stay in a position where you feel like you’re selling yourself short and not gaining the experience you need to advance.
Challenge No. 4: Managing microaggressions
Has someone told you that she is old enough to be your mother? Or has someone attempted to challenge your music or movie intelligence because that was “way before your time”? If you’re a millennial woman, I am sure you have heard these comments and more. I’ve always wondered why there was a need to mention these things. It’s obviously not done as an attempt to develop an affinity or sense of closeness to someone. Instead, I have always interpreted the statements as a way to question your credibility. Why can’t we just accept that our workforce is changing?
Employers, it’s time to address these barriers that make it challenging for young women leaders to advance and/or stay at a given organization. No matter where we work or how old we are, we need strong leaders in our workplaces, regardless of their age or gender.