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What gender barriers do millennial women face in the workplace?

January 10, 2017

This article was written by Kaytie Zimmerman from Forbes and is licensed by Bloomberg.

More and more studies are being released that reveal the challenges women face in the office, compared to men, extend well beyond pay differences. Whether it’s a man benefiting from small talk more than a woman, setting the office temperature based on an average male comfort level, or female leaders being perceived negatively when taking the same actions as a male leader, it’s clear we have a long way to go to better gender equality at work.

“Explicit gender bias has largely disappeared from the workplace due to tougher legislation and increased focus on diversity issues,” stated Megan Gerhardt, Professor of Management & Leadership at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business. “However, challenges still remain; ones that take a different shape and form from those encountered by prior generations of women.”

While the office temperature may be of less importance than the perception surrounding female leadership, there are serious challenges that young female employees face uniquely because they are women. The challenges millennial women attest to extend far beyond their paycheck.

Do women need to work harder than men for recognition?
Women often comment that they have to put more effort into their work than their male peers in order to earn recognition and praise. Perceptions are strong and lead to women overworking themselves just for a thumbs up.

“I found many times my contributions had to be significantly larger than my male counterparts to merit a public ‘good job’ in front of various audiences,” shared Jenny Dorsey, professional chef and culinary consultant at Jenny Dorsey Consulting, an establishment that helps food businesses excel. “Even when I did such a great job at work one of the top directors of the client’s company called me out to my own firm as a fantastic contributor, I only received a half-hearted email from my partners (which mostly sounded like disbelief).”

Shifting expectations of workplace appearance
Because society often places appearance expectations on women in the form of advertisements and ridicule of celebrity looks, female employees can often feel the pressure to get their appearance just right.

Unfair associations between appearance and work performance are more frequently made about women in the office, whether clothing, body frame, or makeup related. Sometimes the criticism is that women don’t look polished enough, with the general attitude being that the woman doesn’t care about their job if they aren’t wearing makeup or high heels.

On the other hand, if a woman dresses her best and pays careful attention to the details of her appearance, others can assume she’s trying too hard.

“Young women without children, especially single ones, are many times seen as an acceptable target of inappropriate comments about beauty,” said Dorsey. “Whether it’s something like, ‘You’re so different you don’t wear makeup,’ ‘You’re naturally pretty, take that as a compliment,’ or ‘Thanks for coming and looking so polished for this meeting,’ you constantly feel under scrutiny for things unrelated to your intelligence and work performance.”

Office roles have evolved
Antiquated perceptions of a woman’s position at work could also lead to uncomfortable and gendered office relationships. “Once when I was a new employee and offered to help where I could, a more senior male team member at a partner company treated me like his secretary,” shared Jessica Thiele, Marketing Manager at VL Inc., an omni-channel data integration service provider. “A senior female coworker said his behavior was out of line and encouraged me to stand up for myself next time.”

Today, we still only see women in 27% of Vice President, 23% of Senior Vice President and 17% of CEO positions. Until there is a balance of gender representation, top to bottom in an organization, biases will exist about the type of roles women work. Other studies have shown even smaller representation in upper management roles.

What’s at stake?
According to Pew Research Center, 53.5 million employees today are millennials. Further, the number of millennials in the workforce will continue to rise as the youngest millennials leave school and enter the workforce, representing 46% of the workforce by 2020. With 40-50% of those millennials representing female employees, companies ought to take notice.

It’s not uncommon for women to be told they need to ‘develop thicker skin’ to tolerate the inappropriate judgments or comments. Is that really the future we want to pave for the women in generations to come?

“I was able to overcome this belittling situation by leaving ‘Corporate America’ behind,” said Sarah Pendley, Public Relations Manager for VERTS Mediterranean Grill. “I decided to move to Austin, Texas, that’s a city full of innovative, like-minded individuals where the culture was a better fit for me.”

Can ‘Corporate America’ afford to lose talented young women to freelance or entrepreneurial pursuits simply because they’re unwilling to face the more subtle challenges women face in the workplace? Since women are already underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline, if women were to leave the corporate workforce, any progress that has been made will be slowed. This is something that companies need to think about as we move closer to gender equality.

What can companies do?
“To solve the issues young women face in the workplace, employers need to shift their mindset,” Pendley shared. “It’s not enough to go through the motions with anti-harassment policies. Employers must think outside of stereotypes and evaluate individuals, male or females, based on their work and value they bring to the company.”

Companies that value their female employees need to go far beyond establishing fair maternity policies or starting ‘Lean In’ circles. The attitude of a company starts at the top. When executive leadership takes action to reduce the daily challenges and helps women feel more comfortable with the idea of their leadership, that’s when a culture can change.

Leaders can correct peers when they’ve made gender assumptions about women workers. They can challenge their management teams to revisit performance reviews and assessments to determine if they’ve rated female staff unfairly. Most importantly, refraining from talking about a female coworker’s appearance is crucial.

What can millennial women do?
“When I was younger, I was nervous to speak up,” shared Pendley. “My advice would be to find your voice and use it. If you’re ever in a situation where you feel targeted or mistreated, tell HR or a trusted supervisor. If you aren’t listened to, don’t be afraid to seek a new company or career where you’ll be supported and respected.”

Further, to turn the tide of gender bias in the office, millennial women can face biases head on. If a co-worker makes a comment they don’t feel is inappropriate, but makes any women feel inferior, confronting the behavior immediately can set the record straight on what is appropriate when working with women.

Millennial women have a choice to set the bar high about what they will accept and what they will not. Standing by your values and requiring respect are traits that will help further break down gender barriers. Better yet, if you’re mistreated because of your gender, don’t just leave the company, but go start your own company as the competition and beat them.

This article was written by Kaytie Zimmerman from Forbes and is licensed by Bloomberg.