Rethinking Role Models: Why Millennial Women Want More

iStock_000009245275XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

We know that role models are critically important for inspiring women to lead. “You can’t be what you can’t see” is a refrain often repeated by feminist trailblazer Marie Wilson. Young women need strong, visible role models, not only to illustrate the heights to which they can aspire, but also to visualize the pathways they can take to get there.

Yet, new research by Dr. Elisabeth Kelan, Associate Professor in the Department of Management at King’s College London, shows that many young women entering the workforce don’t necessarily identify with the women at the top.

In her new book, Rising Stars: Developing Millennial Women as Leaders, she explains how millennial women are challenging the way we have long understood role models to work. She explained, “What women are doing is questioning. They are looking at the sunny side as well as the shadowy side.”

“It’s about being admired rather than idealized,” she said. And according to Dr. Kelan, that’s a good thing – for women and for companies. Here’s why.

Autonomy and Flexibility

Dr. Kelan began working on the research about five years ago in response to a common question: what’s going on with these Millennials? To those already in the professional space, the new entry-level workforce seemed so different than previous generations. They seemed impatient, almost that they felt like they should be the CEO the minute they walk through the door.

At the same time, she explained, companies were also concerned about the pipeline – how to attract junior women into fields that are dominated by men, and how to keep them there.

“That’s the sweet spot I wanted to explore,” she recalled, “the meeting of gender and Millennials. The academic term we use is intersectionality.” Focusing on the professional services, Dr. Kelan and her team performed lengthy interviews with young women and men from all over the world who were new to the workforce.

And in order to ensure that the differences between generations couldn’t just be attributed to general life changes (for example, if you survey a Millennial and a Gen X person, their answers will likely be different because they are at different stages in their lives), Dr. Kelan draws on research called cross-temporal meta-analyses, comparing studies on young people that have been performed over the decades.

And the research did find some interesting differences between Millennials and everyone else, that couldn’t just be attributed to life stages (or a get-off-my-lawn mentality). The main one, and this applied to both men and women, is that today’s generation of the workforce is focused on autonomy.

It’s common to say that Millennials desire “work life balance” or “workplace flexibility” more than other generations, but that’s not quite it, Dr. Kelan explained. “They do want to play hard in the work context, but it’s not necessarily work life balance that they are after. It’s more that they have an expectation of autonomy.”

“It’s not about laziness. They want to determine how they work.”

That is related to changing workforce conditions, she continued. “Organizations no longer have the context of loyalty, and millennial men and women understand that a job-for-life is no longer an option. They know they have to be at the top of their game to keep their job, but they also want to have sustainable working practices so they don’t burn out.”

That autonomy or control over working practices is seen as a way to stay sane in an increasingly demanding and rapidly shifting work environment.

Blaming Themselves

That autonomy factor also plays into the way millennial women see themselves, for better or worse.

“With this generation in particular, being a woman or being a man seemed not to matter to them. They saw gender as relevant to their mothers or grandmothers, but not as relevant today. Yet, there were still differences in the research between the genders.”

On one level this is wonderful – young women believe there is nothing holding them back from achieving their dreams! This is the first generation, she noted, that the self-confidence level of women was equal to that of their male peers.

But there is a downside as well. “This is a fantastic attitude. But at the same time, if you always take your success and failure on yourself, you are unable to see the structural barriers that persist.”

Institutionalized sexism still exists across the professional workplace, but young women aren’t seeing it. That means that when they get passed over for a promotion that goes to a less-qualified male peer, they believe it is their own fault… rather than acknowledging it as a common feature of an unfair system.

“This is gender discrimination 2.0,” Dr. Kelan explained. “We are dealing with much more subtle forms of discrimination.” For example, is it simply that junior men choose to speak up more in meetings… or is it that they are given the floor more often because senior people are subtly more comfortable with them?

“Many millennial women would say ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not working hard enough.’ But in some cases their bosses have given preference to male colleagues.”

Ambivalence Around Role Models

This is why the guidance and inspiration of senior women is so important for millennial women – their career paths can be a road map for success, showing how to navigate tricky political challenges and gender biases.

That leads to one of Dr. Kelan’s most important findings: millennial women don’t relate to role models in the same way men do. For that matter, the research completely reframes the way we’ve thought about role models until now.

“We noticed that millennial women used different words when they described their role models than men. And we were puzzled by that. Why would women describe them differently?” she asked. “There was this ambivalence. They would say something like, ‘She’s fantastic at her work… but she never sees her children.’ We couldn’t detect this in men.”

Millennial women seemed to want more from their role models. They thought of them as they thought about themselves: whole people with jobs and lives, families and interests. Men seemed to hone in on their role models’ professional achievements, rather than the big picture.

At first the researchers thought maybe this ambivalent perception of senior women was influenced by the Queen Bee phenomenon, where senior women are believed to pull the ladder up behind them. “Like something out of The Devil Wears Prada,” Dr. Kelan explained. But, they found, that just wasn’t taking place.

It seemed that because millennial women are so fueled to achieve, and so confident that they can “have it all,” they had trouble identifying with women who have made sacrifices throughout their careers. They may have thought these women were great bosses, and they were understanding of those sacrifices, but they didn’t seem to want to be “just like them.”

Dr. Kelan emphasized that this ambivalence is not a bad thing. Rather, it presents a whole new concept of the role model.

Instead of feeling the need to find a single senior person to emulate, Millennial women are drawing inspiration from many different sources (in fact, she noted, while the men in the study only chose other men as role models, millennial women had a more diverse view of who could be their role model, selecting both men and women).

“They don’t need to emulate, but integrate traits of different role models,” she said. “This plays to authenticity as well. It would be a disaster to encourage everybody to be exactly like someone else. It’s much better to be able to create something unique to you.”

She encouraged junior women to think about specific traits they admire in senior women, and then integrate those traits and achievements into a big picture aspiration.

Advice for Leaders

All told, this new research takes a load off senior women as well.

Many senior women report feeling overwhelmed, that they are expected to be part of every mentoring program, every networking group, and every internal women’s initiative. Dr. Kelan says their participation in these groups is important, but because millennial women are looking to men as role models too, perhaps companies should tap a greater proportion of senior men to participate in these initiatives as well.

“If you are a senior woman, you should take mentoring women seriously. But I would encourage more male senior leaders to do the same. I would also encourage companies to create a more comfortable framework for senior men to mentor junior women,” she advised. “We don’t want to overburden senior female leaders – they have already been given a tall order.”

Secondarily, she continued, it may be helpful to present mentoring relationships as a two-way conversation. Junior people can certainly be helped by senior leaders in learning how things work in their company, but tech-savvy Millennials may be able to help senior folks grasp the complex social media space, for example.

“If you create an environment where it’s safe to communicate, it can be very beneficial to a company,” she said. “It forces us to specify why we think an old way of doing things is the best.”

She also advised senior people not be frustrated when Millennials don’t do things in a way that might seem obvious to them – for example, she heard frequently that senior leaders were annoyed that junior people were not taking notes during meetings. “But maybe they will go back to their desk and create a mind-map afterward.”

“It’s quite important to set expectations of what is important in business. Some things need to be spelled out – Millennials don’t have the innate ability to understand how things are supposed to be done. Make sure the rules are clear, and that means they are explained and embedded in the culture.”

Finally, she said, it’s important that leaders talk frankly about bias. “I have a slight fear that we need to prepare Millennial women a bit better about the impact of gender. We have to make stereotypes explicit to overcome them. Hopefully in 20 or 30 years when they are leaders, we won’t have to have this conversation.”

Note: PwC International have collaborated with Dr. Elisabeth Kelan to release a number of thought leadership resources in support of International Women’s Day, all of which are focused on the theme Gender, generation and leadership: Supporting the millennial woman craft her career. Visit to find out more.

2 Responses

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    Excellent article on the subject and completely chimes with my company’s experience of coaching women through the different stages of their career. Young women don’t want to hear that there is a problem with unconscious bias and it’s only when they are in the middle phase that they start to see it. And this disillusionment often triggers their exit.