Early in my career, I was invited to a women’s retreat that was meant to teach me how to be a leader. It was organized by prominent feminist writers and held in an upstate New York farmhouse. I sat in my pajamas alongside a diverse group of women. We drank wine, ate chocolate, and talked about how to our envision careers and dominate the workplace. I was one of the youngest women in the group, barely twenty-two. As I sipped my chardonnay, I checked myself to make sure I was holding the glass correctly. My tuition was subsidized by my first male boss, who thought I could benefit from coaching. I knew and respected these women and I remembered quoting them frequently in my papers on women’s psychology in college freshman year. I prepared for inspiration.
I got binders full of instructions and attended workshop after workshop on negotiation, financial management, and networking. While I can’t remember specifics, the message was clear: If you want to succeed as a woman at work, there is a recipe and we have it. At the end of the weekend, each participant was asked to formally present her professional goals to the group with pride, unbridled ambition and assuredness. At that age, I found the message unfamiliar, inauthentic and really uncomfortable. When it was my turn to stand in front of the nonworking fireplace and give my pitch, I froze and teared up. The organizers were not sympathetic. I saw the annoyance and impatience on their faces. Maybe it was just my insecurity, but it seemed that the elders had spoken and I was not yet poised to break the glass ceiling. One attempt to console me was most direct. “It’s ok. You’ll learn how to do it our way later on.” The reality was that their advice was not wrong, it just didn’t resonate with me at the time. It stung that they weren’t able to realize that while I wasn’t ready to act their way, I still had plenty to say. As much respect as I had for these women, they made it clear that I didn’t fit their mold of a women leader.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen new research about the obstacles faced by both olderand younger women in the workplace. What’s rarely talked about is the relationship between these two cohorts. While we’d hope that “ ‘women helping women”‘ would be a shared rallying cry, our own experiences with mothers or sisters remind us that’s not always the reality. So how do women of different generations relate to each other at work? And what can we do to prevent a generation gap, especially at such a crucial time in the cultural conversation? It’s time to explore how women of all ages are impacting the advancement of other women into leadership roles at work and in public life, and what we can do about it.
When Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright spoke disparagingly of young womencampaigning for Bernie, I remembered how I felt when one of those prominent feminists patted me on shoulder dismissively.
At the recent rally, iconic women with life experience and battle scars, wanted to tell the next generation what they should believe and why they were too naive to realize it. In contrast, younger women resented what they interpreted as condescension. In a recent NYT article, “Why Sexism at the Office Makes Women Love Hillary Clinton,” Jill Filipovic encapsulated the conflict well. “The mothers-versus-daughters narrative... is particularly pronounced now, and tinged with stereotypes on both sides. The idealistic but ungrateful naïfs who think sexism is a thing of the past... are seemingly battling the pantsuited old scolds prattling on about feminism.” Filipovic goes on to discuss how women’s experience in life and work can radicalize them and make them more open to feminism as an organizing principle.
I have been coaching executive women through the transition to parenthood for almost seven years. Filopovic is right. Experiences at work can transform women’s experience of womanhood. They are hardened by the harsh realities of inequality in the workplace, realities that are often improved or exacerbated by messages they get from more senior women. In my client base, nearly 70% of the women who have gotten negative feedback from their manager about career management post- kids get it from women who raised kids while building their career decades ago. On the flip side, I hear younger employees writing off their manager’s experiences as the harsh advice from an embittered woman who sacrificed the life she wanted in her efforts to get ahead.
When one client told her boss she was pregnant, her female boss (with grown children) put her head in her hands. She then told her that to succeed, she would need a chef, a nanny, and a maid. If the employee didn’t, her boss warned, she would endanger her future at the firm. On another occasion, I told a baby boomer head of HR that the flex policy she wanted me to recommend wasn’t being taken seriously by employees. “Right” she said, “because all of the women who take it are losers.”
As soon as another one of my clients came back from family leave, her boss doubled her workload. When she had trouble keeping up with the work and a newborn at home, she was put on probation. Her boss said she had given her an opportunity to prove her potential and she’d failed. The client told me that it seemed the only way to succeed was to live as unhappy a life as she believed her supervisor had.
There are some indisputable truths neither generation wants to acknowledge. Younger generations would not be where we are without women like Hillary and Madeline. On the other hand, many of the experiences of modern motherhood and pressures of a 24/7 work culture didn’t exist when their kids were young. By dismissing these differences as cosmetic or inconsequential we allow them to be divisive.
Women need to bridge the generational divides around leadership. Our experiences will never directly parallel the others’. Conflicting and unspoken assumptions put us all at risk. We risk losing top young talent in positions of leadership at work. We risk losing ground on the progress that previous generations of women have fought for and won.
If you have a story to share about your own workplace experience, I want to hear it.