Will Millennial Women Seek Leadership?

millennial womenAs a millennial, I often hear the same complaint from my fellow millennial women lawyers: “Why is it so hard to find a female mentor?” Digging deeper, there are often two complaints. The first: there aren’t any female partners at my firm. The second: OK, yes, there are some female partners at my firm, but they often made career and family choices that I don’t want to make.

Let’s look at both of those. Last year, consulting group Bain & Company released the results of a five-year study on men and women in corporate America. The study asked about both genders’ interest in pursuing a top management position in a large company.

The results may surprise you. In the first two years of their career, 43% of women aspired to be in top management. Conversely, only 34% of men aspired to be the same. Equally important, both genders were equally confident about their abilities to reach those top positions.

Two years later, the numbers changed, fairly dramatically. 34% of men with two or more years of experience still wanted to be in top-level management. The percentage of women however plummeted. Only 16% of women with two or more years of experience still aspired to be top-level management. Moreover women’s confidence about reaching those management positions fell by 50%. Men’s confidence levels stayed the same.

Bain found that the declines in aspiration and confidence were independent of marriage and motherhood status. Rather, women felt that they failed to meet the stereotype of the ideal worker – long hours, constant smartphone use, sacrificing free time. They also felt that their supervisors were unwilling to support them and their career paths. Finally, they felt there were few role models at the top –no women in senior management meant no model to aspire toward.

Where Are the Women Leaders?

The law firm landscape shares many similarities with corporate America. According to the ABA’s Commission on Women, women make up 47.3% of law school graduates. They make up 44.8% of law firm associates. However, they only make up 20.2% of partners and 17% of equity partners. And only 4% of the 200 largest law firms are managed by women. So a female millennial attorney may have the same thoughts as a young female member of corporate America – where are the women leaders and how can I become one if I don’t see any?

But just wait, the 20.2% women partners may exclaim. We are here! And we do try to mentor these young women. But many of them are simply not interested in making the same career and life choices that we made.

There is some truth to that.

Millennials Opt for Life Priority

As with most things generational, this is often framed as a workplace conflict between baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and those old enough to be their children, millennials, born between 1980 and 2000. And as a generational trend, millennials are opting out from the classic career ladder their parents may have climbed. In a recent survey, 94% of college educated millennials agreed that their generation does not support the current model of economic and career success, while 77% agreed that their personal lives would take priority over their professional goals. Not work-life balance; life priority.

The problem when it comes to mentoring relationships is that this may not be a paradigm with which many boomer women agree. Many boomer women fought hard for inclusion of family considerations in the workplace, but they understood that the reality of the workplace meant that success often meant less family and personal time. However one of the oft-cited reasons that millennials reject the corporate ladder is that they are the children of these very boomer parents. Millennials are well-aware of the time, dedication and sacrifice it takes to move up the ladder; as a generation, many have chosen to not take that path.

What happens then? Older female mentors may then find themselves frustrated by younger mentees looking to prioritize (not balance) personal lives and/or family lives. Conversely, younger mentees may find themselves frustrated by older mentors who offer personal life options that younger mentees may not find palatable or even possible. Conflict becomes inevitable.

But the reality is that, as the largest generation in the workforce, millennials will take over leadership positions in the next few decades. Unfortunately the Bain report concluded that “[d]espite women comprising more than half of all college graduates and about 40% of MBAs, they number only a slim 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 17% of board members—numbers that have barely moved in decades.”

A Shared Legacy

We need to keep young women in the workplace and help them realize that there is room for women at the top. The modern American workplace has changed significantly over the past century, thanks in large part to boomer women entering, staying in and leading the workplace.

What more change can millennial women bring if they stay in the workplace to lead? I know I want to find out. So let’s encourage mentoring relationships that highlight multiple career paths, personal guidance, shared experiences, and mutual respect.

Above all, let’s recognize that older women lawyers have a hard-earned legacy they want to leave behind just as younger women lawyers have a legacy they’re only beginning to understand, and create.



This article first appeared in the Chicago Lawyer magazine.


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