Why It’s So Important To Have Inspiring Mentors And Role Models

Generation Y women may have CONFIDENCE AND OPPORTUNITY, but they still need INSPIRING MENTORS to guide them explains ELISABETH KELAN 

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They were born between 1977 and 1992, grew up with the digital revolution and in the wake of second-wave feminism, entering the professional workforce during the last decade. These 20- and 30-somethings might be forgiven for thinking there are very few barriers left for them to break. Ireland now boasts the eighth lowest wage gap of the 28 OECD countries, and data from the PwC Women in Work index shows female labour rose by over six per cent between 2000 and 2011.

These “millennial women” might be more confident than the women of any previous generation, but academic research by psychology professor Dr Jean Twenge and colleagues suggests that the average millennial woman also has higher levels of anxiety. And although 51 per cent of female millennials believe they’ll be able to rise to the
most senior levels – suggesting a psychological glass ceiling has been smashed – the same women are more likely than their male contemporaries to criticise their performance in the workplace.

But it’s not all work and no play. Millennial women also place a high value on leisure time and job satisfaction, not just a large pay packet. The common view of millennials as egocentric, lazy and spoiled isn’t always accurate (and this view isn’t grounded in solid research), but this generation of women do seem harder to please. Take, for example, the case study of Leonora, a 26-year-old woman who, despite bagging her “dream job” and working alongside colleagues whose company she enjoyed, visited a career coach because she felt her life “wasn’t on the right track”. When asked why she felt this, Leonora expressed concern that there were few positive female role models in her company whose lives she would like to emulate, and so was unsure of where her hard work would take her.

Millennial women still struggle to identify role models. While they reap the benefits of older generations’ gender equality struggles, they still feel dissatisfied following in their footsteps.

It’s a common paradox. Millennial women still struggle to identify role models. While they reap the benefits of older generations’ gender equality struggles (an issue millennials are likely to view as passé or belonging to previous generations), they still feel dissatisfied following in their footsteps. It might be that the senior level woman is succeeding in the workplace but doesn’t have children, or that she has children but rarely sees them. The pitfalls of being a professional woman are well documented.

But if millennial women are going to overcome their uncertainty and dissatisfaction to reach top–level positions, it is critical for them to identify role models they can draw upon. That could be a person they meet face-to-face regularly or someone they don’t know personally. Identification spans a range of potential relationships that could be classified as role models, coaches, mentors and sponsors. Such identifications are essential for aspiring leaders to develop “possible selves”.

But although millennials are likely to seek advice from senior women, they do not always find the support they require. Many senior women mingle among themselves, some already mentor a range of individuals and others simply don’t have the time within their schedules. The problem with mentoring is that it can come with expectations that seem overwhelming to the mentor. Being a lone guide to a younger professional comes with a lot of pressure.

Young female professionals are prone to scrutinising senior women in great detail – are they too emotional? Too tough? Do they see their children often enough? So although there are more women in senior positions, millennial women don’t always want to emulate their lives.

But my research does suggest that millennial women are unlikely to “idealise” their role models: they admire certain aspects of their colleagues’ lives and achievements, but recognise flaws and bad decisions as well. Young female professionals are prone to scrutinising senior women in great detail – are they too emotional? Too tough? Do they see their children often enough? So although there are more women in senior positions, millennial women don’t always want to emulate their lives.

It could be this critical eye that eventually leads young professional women to leadership success. As an aspiring leader, you should also be authentic – and being authentic means being true to yourself. If a junior professional woman only tries to emulate somebody else, the likelihood is that she is not going to be seen as authentic. She runs the risk of being seen as a poor copy of the original.

Having a more realistic expectation of senior women’s lives means that junior professionals might be encouraged to build a larger network of people that inspire them, instead of searching in vain for the woman who has it all. I call this “a composite role model”.

Millennial women can develop the ability to think critically about what it is they appreciate about these people, and how they can integrate elements of each one into their own self-identity.

By seeking inspiration from a wider range of men and women, millennial women can develop the ability to think critically about what it is they appreciate about these people, and how they can integrate elements of each one into their own self-identity. It’s a more balanced and well-rounded approach that hopefully will allow junior professional women to develop into “authentic” leaders who break the mould. Maybe one day, they will become the fabled women who have it all.

Elisabeth Kelan is an Associate Professor at London’s King’s College, whose study into the professional lives of this generation, Rising Stars: Developing Millennial Women As Leaders, was supported by PwC and is published by Palgrave Macmillan. You can read more about navigating your career as a millennial woman or managing millennial talent at www.pwc.com.

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Meet The Millennials …

THE VOICES Lena Dunham of television show Girls is often credited with being the voice of the millennial generation, but she’s not without controversy, being widely criticised for her privileged viewpoint. But then millennials grew up with social media – perhaps their real spokesperson is anyone with a smartphone and witty put-down. Guardian contributor and Vice fashion editor Bertie Brandes authors a column on modern-day feminism called Pretty Girl Bullshit, in which she unrelentingly picks apart “girl-related stuff”, from internet trolls to misogynist videos. Think of her as the bratty successor to Gen X’s Caitlin Moran.

THE BUSINESSWOMEN Millennials have risen to top-level positions in tech: Google’s Parisa Tabriz – the “Security Princess” – made it onto Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, as did Rachel Haot, the first Chief Digital Officer of New York City. Despite this, women are still outnumbered in the sector – estimates suggest they represent between just ten and 30 per cent, and the proportion of women in science could be lower. Finding inspiring role models is even more challenging, but non-profit start-ups such as Scientista are trying to address this under-representation in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths).

THE FASHION LEADERS Zoë Jordan, Simone Rocha and Louise Gray have all showed collections at London Fashion Week, suggesting a boom in demand for clothes made by young women, for young women. Online outlets like Sophia Amoruso’s Nasty Gal and Roberta Benteler’s Avenue 32 hone in on this demographic with curated stock and targeted content, as does the Irish McGinn sisters’ start-up Prowlster (www.theprowlster.com). Millennials’ taste is shaped by image-sharing sites like Pinterest and Instagram, so Prowlster’s combination of digital content and click-to-buy is timely.

Elisabeth Kelan @EKelan

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our September issue, out Saturday September 3.

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