Millennial Women Are Successful, Driven, and Completely Unsure.

As I celebrate the anniversary of another wonderful year with my company, I relish in seeing the growing pains along with the successes, as they often come hand in hand. I have watched myself grow as a woman, as an employee and as a leader. During that time, I have found that women leaders clearly navigate a different societal and organizational landscape than their male counterparts. Female leaders must deal with ambivalent reactions deeply rooted in gender stereotypes: The assertive, authoritative, and dominant behavior typical of most male leaders tends to be viewed as atypical and unattractive in women. While many CEOs make gender diversity a priority - such as my own CEO - we need to call upon not only leaders in the business, but all aspects of life by setting aspirational goals for the proportion of women in leadership roles.

So what does that mean for women, myself included, who strive to be deemed “high-achieving” without being labeled as “aggressive” or “dominant”? This has become a very public conversation as of late thanks in part to the Sheryl Sandberg’s and even the trendy #GirlBoss fans of the world. Finding the perfect balance of world domination and the pull of child rearing has long been a dominant explanation for the small proportion of women in corporate boardrooms, C-suites, partnerships and other seats of power. Despite the fact that men and women actually have pretty similar career priorities, the belief that women value career less is widespread. The key factor for this is still deep-rooted attitudes that a woman should be the primary caregiver, so it is “understood” that her career may have to take a backseat for a while as similar male colleagues move ahead at a more rapid pace.

I am part of an executive business council in San Diego, which is made up entirely of men over 40 years old, with the exception of a sprinkling of women CFOs and CEOs. I am, by far, younger than everyone else by at least a decade. In speaking with one of my female fellow members, she told me that she’s the only female in her organization who isn’t a receptionist. For me, I have found the subtle gender bias that persists in organizations such as these disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader. It’s not enough for a woman to identify and instill the “right skills” and competencies. The context must support a woman’s motivation to lead and increase the likelihood that others will recognize and encourage her efforts even when she doesn’t look or behave like the current generation of senior executives. 

It is tempting to think that people launching their careers today will change the game. After all, it was only a few generations ago that women were barred from higher education and many professions. Finding the ability to overcome these bias and internalizing a sense of oneself as a leader is an iterative process. Their capabilities grow as they show their ability to expand and step outside their comfort zone. An absence of affirmation, however, diminishes self-confidence and discourages women from seeking that leadership identity that will eventually wither away if not nurtured. Women fall so easily into this pocket because of the aforementioned stereotypes against women and success. How women are perceived - how they dress, how they talk, their “executive presence”, their capacity to “fill a room” and their leadership style are all the focal point for whether or not we will be viewed as successful. But most women will tell you the time and energy spent on managing these perceptions can be ultimately self-defeating. 

High-achieving women anchor themselves in purpose and focus less on how others perceive them and are fixated on their goals and learning from failures. This is something that rarely comes naturally and takes a lot of practice. Remember when people made things? When people took pride in hard work and working with their hands? Remember when some worked hard enough and honed their craft well enough to be called craftsmen? That was long before people described them as being just a mechanic, a welder or farmer. It was when an honest, hard fought living was honorable and respected. No one came out of school expecting to be handed a high paying job because they were entitled to it or because they arrived out of higher education. They earned what was given to them. What they earned was valued more than anything that has ever been handed to them. As high-achieving women, we must work together to foster safe spaces of leadership identity development and encourage others to anchor ourselves in our leadership purpose and resolve. 
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