RPO & StaffingTalent Acquisition

The Gen Y Gender Discussion

Talking to Millennial leaders: How they got there; where they want to go; and the gender and age ceilings explored.
By Emily Wagner
The gender disconnect in the business world remains today. We know that 4.6 percent of CEOs on the Fortune 500 list are women and only two of the Top 100 Best Performing Global CEOs named by the Harvard Business Review in 2013 are female. Of the new workforce—Gen Y and 80 million members strong—more than 57 percent of the 2010 bachelor degree graduates are female, according to the Department of Education’s survey Gender Equality in Education.
In response, we see “solutions” flood our search engines. Advice to bridge the gaps through leaning in, leaning out, leaning back, and countless top 10 lists guiding readers step-by-step on how to shatter glass ceilings are readily available.
I have directly partnered with organizations seeking these solutions for big change. For example, a Fortune 500 company was seeking a multi-year female leadership hiring initiative. The objective was to proactively introduce a long-term executive gender diversity program. How? Through the addition of high- potential female leaders into management positions, with executive career trajectories. This presented the platform to hear many stories along the way of young leaders—both good and bad.
Keep Up or Get Out of the Way
Even the oldest members of the Millennial generation graduated college after September 11, 2001, and many of them joining the workforce in the years surrounding the crash of 2008.
Cat Hernandez, head of talent at Chartbeat, described plans for a career in finance, but graduated right as Wall Street collapsed. Taking it as a sign, she went into an MBA program and fell into a career in recruitment. Working for both the corporate and agency side for well-known organizations gave her a unique perspective, but she was ultimately drawn to the startup space. The opportunities seemed more promising overall, especially for someone her age and experience level. At Chartbeat, she’s been tasked with building out a talent infrastructure for a startup in high-growth mode. She describes it as a catapult to her career and “one with unbelievable responsibilities and challenges. And while the risk and stress level is often higher, so is the reward, as I’ve had the chance to have huge impact on a company’s future.”
I heard very similar stories from both George Bozonelos, CEO of Forefront Magazine, and Leah McKelvey, senior director of marketing and partnerships at ClearEdge Marketing. Bozonelos, promoted into his first corporate management role at 23, felt he reached a ceiling quickly in an outdated culture.
“I felt like they weren’t moving fast enough and seizing opportunities fast enough,” he recalls. It was then he opted to pursue a high-risk, high-reward decision to start a now- successful magazine. He and his co-founder run the company today with a motto to “do good by people” and work to create a flexible culture where employees balancing families and ambitious careers can succeed without prejudice. He now defines success by “making money to build something with the right intentions, not for a title,” and hires employees who fit this.
McKelvey left a nine-year career as a leader at CareerBuilder for a growing marketing and PR firm in search of more passionate work and a more personal impact with her clients.
Glass Ceilings and the Optimistic Executive
There appears to be age barriers on the way up the ladder. For Gen Y leaders, the ceilings they are currently breaking appear not to only be focused on gender, but heavily on the age. It is a challenge to gain professional respect. As the same time, these executives were also very optimistic regarding personal accountability and delivering results versus blaming the societal biases.
McKelvey spoke openly about her experience: “When working with some clients that have been in an industry for 20-plus years, they can be skeptical. I have lost count of how many times I have heard something to the effect of; well, I was already in my first job when you were born. However, once you demonstrate value, they are usually open to building a relationship.”
Bozonelos detailed a story of his first management position, tasked with leading a team of colleagues, most with several years of experience over him. “With insecurities (that) my team would not take me seriously, I took measures to purposely hide my age and look older by growing facial hair,” he recalls. In hindsight he describes, “It really wasn’t age I needed to overcome, rather just a focus on leading exceptionally well.”
“I purposely left off my graduation year on my LinkedIn profile to avoid preconceived stigmas I may not have the level of expertise needed to deliver results. I’ve also learned, however, to take more ownership of my career because knowing what you want is only half the battle. Every HR and talent leader should be able to quantify the value they bring to a company. It’s about building a metrics system that makes sense and measuring it consistently,” Hernandez adds.
First Comes Work, Then Comes Family
According to data presented by the CDC in the National Vital Statistics Report, the rate of women having babies in their late 20s has declined 2 percent per year since 2008, while the rates for older age groups have increased.
Bozonelos explains that early in his career he knew he had much to accomplish and felt family obligations may affect his career. “I thought family relationships could come later once I hit certain career milestones,” he says. Now as he prepares to get married this summer, he describes, “We can’t wait to have kids, but my fiancé also wants to open her own practice and I know it will be hard. Having two working parents is tricky and it is so much harder for women in this situation. Our generation needs to be more mindful of this and build more flexible companies to better accommodate.”
Hernandez agrees, knowing for her a balance must be met. “I don’t currently have a family, but absolutely want that in the future. Although my current company provides excellent work/ life balance, chaos is built-in to the startup environment. I know I’ll need flexibility in the future, but also can’t imagine I would ever be the type of person that could stay home permanently,” she says.
Start the Conversation

When presented, these leaders felt the current gender statistics were personally impactful and are not willing to accept it as a continued societal norm or wait for others to do so either, but rather want to start the conversations now on active solutions. McKelvey explains, “We will see a natural progression as the next generations grow within their careers, but to move the needle quicker, we need to have deliberate conversations and create sponsorship and mentorship opportunities for women, not just wait for the evolution.”
Bozonelos expresses, “I believe women do have it exponentially harder to succeed and balance both a career and a family and truly, men don’t face the same challenges."
Workplaces can absolutely do better to bridge this. Bozonelos also believes the conversations must happen, especially with information so readily available to “our” generation: “The new workforce is on its way up and as the new generation of well-read, well-educated individuals that are talking so openly and transparently about gender stigmas, antiquated viewpoints will change.”
Hernandez details that solutions starts with hiring from the bottom, especially in male-dominated fields. “It’s important to understand where many of today’s executives start. Closing the gap is attainable and there are many organizations that focus on this from young women in high school to those who are already working. As an HR leader, I look at those engrained preconceptions and attempt starting a new conversation, because I truly believe that society benefits long-term.”
These Millennial executives tend to stay true to their generational traits and appear much less interested in accepting the suggestions of how to “lean,” but are prepared and even eager to challenge the biases that exist in the workforce today. Right now, Gen Y’ers (more than half of which are female) are not only in the workforce, but already leading and aggressively seeking change. It is clear companies must start an active dialogue to find a solution or they will quickly lose their competitive edge and highest performers to those organizations not only taking notice, but writing a new rule book.
Emily Wagner is managing director at Webber Kerr Associates.

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