J. Maureen Henderson’s recent Forbes article, “Shut Up, Sheryl Sandberg: Millennial Women Reject Role Models, Mentors,” generated a lot of reaction and caused many women – of all ages – to ask: are Gen Y women really rejecting older women CEOs as role models?
We asked six young women at YWCAs across the country to share their thoughts about the article, and about intergenerational relationships and mentoring in general. Here’s what they said:
Q: Is the Forbes article an accurate depiction of how young women feel about older female leaders?
Kelsie Boyd, 23: Sadly, the article does describe a true reflection on how young women view female leaders. I regret this to be true of my generation in a broad spectrum because I feel that young women have a lot to gain by learning from the advice and wisdom of women who have led similar career paths.
Carmille Lim, 25: The Forbes piece misrepresents the perception I feel my fellow millennial women professionals have – we are not rejecting mentors; we are just processing “mentorship” in a different way. The article acknowledges that both parties have different career goals: the mentor is typically an older female leader who has climbed the corporate ladder and would like to groom someone to follow in her footsteps. Young women in mentee positions are not aspiring to climb the corporate ladder in as high numbers as their mentors. Instead, more young women are seeking a career path that allows them to be innovative and creative and that’s personally fulfilling.
Stephanie Pliskin, 29: I don’t understand why some view the article so negatively. Just because women aren’t choosing to follow in their high-powered CEO’s footsteps does not mean they are not empowered. Empowerment means the ability to choose and no one should fault those women for choosing a different path, nor insinuate that they are failing. Everyone’s goals are different and should be celebrated regardless of pay scale or corporate power.
Solveig Pedersen, 33: I believe that mentorship is still very important, and I do seek out female professional mentors. I find it fascinating that my own perspectives about mentorship and role models are reflected in the Forbes article.
Rachel Libelo,24: I don’t think young women are completely shrugging off the advice of older, more experienced workers in their field. They just want to make their own way rather than following in someone else’s footsteps. In today’s employment environment, there’s so much emphasis on being unique – to get noticed, you have to stand out from the rest. Once young women get into that mindset, it’s hard to get out. We still value the advice from more experienced women, but we’re going to use that guidance in our own way to advance our career.
Carmille: The article looks at mentoring with a traditional lens: the mentor expects to have a protégé – someone to perpetuate current best practices in existing business settings of long-standing corporations. On the other hand, young women professionals are not seeking to replicate an individual or perpetuate an organizational entity as it stands. Instead, the type of mentoring they are seeking are opportunities to learn tools, tips and best practices, so that they can combine this knowledge with their own strengths and industries in order to create new businesses, improve upon ideas or reinvent existing business models.
Q: What can both older women and younger women do to bridge the generation gap at the workplace and beyond?
Jenna Lodge, 27: This reminds me of the old adage, “History repeats itself.” All generations of women must be adaptable in their learning, mindset and outlook. Young women don’t want to ignore the amazing work of the women that have come before us, including older women in the movement. Young women want to learn the history of our organization while infusing it with our own ideas. Just because an idea may be new and different does not make it less worthy of contemplation. Through mentor relationships, older women can create safe spaces for young women to learn and grow within the movement in their own unique ways. Given the opportunity, young women will rise to the occasion, embrace new concepts and build upon the success of women before us. We strive for excellence and want to make a positive impact for generations behind us to follow. I think older women would get a great sense of satisfaction knowing that a younger female can confidently say, “She helped me become the woman I am today!”
Rachel: Rather than trying to bridge the generation gap by “meeting the other half way,” it’s better to recognize the value in each others’ differences. That may seem like a cliché answer, but age diversity in an organization is important – especially for a nonprofit that survives on donations. Older women provide insights from years of experience; they already know what works and what doesn’t. Younger women know how to reach a younger demographic, which is important for staying relevant and competitive in a technological age. To be successful, women should actively listen to one another and take advantage of varying perspectives.
Q: What do you personally look for in a role model or mentor, both professionally and personally?
Solveig: I recently spoke with a female leader I admire about work/personal life balance. She explained to me that she has given all of her energy and time to her professional life, and in retrospect, at 65 years old, she wishes that she had allowed for more balance with other areas of her life. This conversation affirmed me in my personal search for balance and my own recognition that I seek professional mentors who share my values. I do not want to live to work – I want to work to live. I want to succeed at work and contribute to my work place and community. I want the time I spend working to be meaningful, but I also want plenty of time to pursue passions outside of work such as volunteering, having a family and traveling. If I found a mentor who did not share those values, their advice would have only limited value to me.
Rachel: For me, one of the most important things a mentor can do is offer perspective. Sometimes I get bogged down if I’m not being as effective as I’d like or if I’m working on a particularly tedious project. To me it feels like the end of the world, which of course it’s not. Having a mentor is great because she can change the context of the situation by helping you see a larger picture.
Kelsie: I look for qualities such as wisdom, positive reinforcement and the ability to constructively criticize while sharing their own experiences. I have been so fortunate to have had this experience in my career path thus far. It really stood out to me that 79 percent of women in the article rate a positive work environment as more important than the size of our paycheck. I believe this says a lot about the amazing influence positive women leaders can have on the younger generation workers.
Q: What do you want older women to know about you and your generation?
Solveig: I want other generations to understand how much energy, intelligence and passion young women can bring to the workplace. I also want them to understand that the value placed on balance does not mean that we do not work as hard, or remain as passionate about our work as they do. This emphasis on balance simply means that I know I will be more productive at work if I am not stressed out, overworked and spending all my time in the office. The balance allows me to bring my full self, with drive and enthusiasm, to my job.
Carmille: While young women may not want to be a duplicate of an accomplished female leader and follow the same career aspirations, young women do appreciate the idea of learning best practices from older women leaders. They may just apply that knowledge differently than their mentor expected. [Editor’s note: Read more of Carmille’s response in her blog, Millennial Women and Mentors: One Young Woman’s Response to “Shut Up, Sheryl Sandberg”]
We’d love to hear what YOU think – what has your own experience been with mentoring? What can both younger and older women do to bridge the generation gap? We encourage women of all ages to post your comments below!
Kelsie Boyd is the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s evening residential representative. Rachel Libelo is a communications and development associate at the YWCA Greater Baltimore. Carmille Lim is development and advocacy manager for the YWCA of O‘ahu in Honolulu, Hawaii. Jenna Lodge is the YWCA of Central Virginia’s community outreach manager and community court advocate. Solveig Pedersen is the director of youth empowerment and social justice for the YWCA Alaska and the chair of the YWCA National Young Women’s Committee. Stephanie Pliskin is assistant manager of school age programs at the YWCA Hartford Region, Hartford, Conn.