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.


Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

7 thoughts on “Will Millennial Women Seek Leadership?

  1. i feel left out.

    your generational characterization has left out my generation. remember Generation X? you know, the people born between 1965 and 1980 or so? the people who generally were considered the children of the Baby Boomers and the parents of the Millennials?

    granted, generations are funny things. they tend to slip back and forth over about 5 years either way, and whether a generation is 15 or 20 years is debatable. and many of us in Generation X prefer the Star Wars Cut-off of 1977-78.

    what’s not so fuzzy is that a generation changes when a new cohort of people start to enter their child-rearing years – when their first children are born.

    so let’s look at the numbers. a Baby Boomer born in 1946 would have been 34 in 1980. demographically, this is a time when it is possible to have a first child, but extremely unlikely. people tend to have their first child in their early 20s. and earlier in their 20s the further in the past you go.

    consider my parents, Baby Boomers born in 1950. they didn’t have their first child (me) until the end of 1973, and second (and last) in 1976, at ages 23 and 26. this was considered oddly late for the time.

    realistically, someone born in 1946 should be expected to have their first child between 1966 and 1971, not 1980.

    at the other end, we have *exactly* the same problem. someone born in 1964 would have been 34 if they had their first child in 2000.

    age 34 or 35 should be considered the end of child-rearing age, not the start.

    my parents would have become grandparents in 1997 if i had my first child at the same age they did. that child would be graduating from high school soon, or maybe prepping for college.

    i was born in 1973 and i am almost 42 years old. my parents were born in 1950 and are both 65 years old. the Baby Boomers are the parents of Generation X and the grandparents of the Millennials.

    1. Hi Jamie – please see my response to Julie below. Gen X has been forgotten and I talk about that in my column. I also don’t disagree, many Gen X parents are Boomers and Traditionalists, and Millennial parents are Boomers and Gen Xers. I’ll make that clearer in my future posts. However the analyses often contrast Boomers and Millennials because both generations are at very interesting places in their life span right now – Millennials starting in the workplace and changing it thanks to technology, and Boomers leading and leaving (and not leaving) the workplace. Gen X, like the mythical middle child, often gets overlooked and in the workplace, might be feeling squeezed out.

      But here’s a great article I saw about Gen X this weekend. Hope you enjoy it:

      Canada’s first Gen X Cabinet – http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/Younger-cabinet-gender-balanced-and-ethnically-diverse-341828891.html

  2. I’m a Gen X’er too. We seem to be one of those forgotten generations. (There was a Gen Y at one point too. Sounds as if they have been included as Millennials now.) Gen X was slammed by the media as being a bunch of slackers and the Millennials have been glorified as all-around-wonderful-human-beings. I am sure I am a bit biased but that is not what I see at an individual level.

    Is it possible that Gen X really started the trend toward prioritizing life?What used to be called “slacking” is now called “prioritizing.” My husband and I have made the choice to prioritize our family, our health and our lives over career advancement. For us, that meant moving back to my husband’s hometown and working in the small firm setting. Personally, I could not be happier with our career choices. I feel that what I do is meaningful and fulfilling.

    I cannot say much about female leadership at large firms because that is not the path I have chosen. I will say that trying compel women to enter, stay in, and lead the workforce if that is not what they want to do on an individual level seems like a step back. No one needs to be the sacrificial lamb, destined to a life with which they are unhappy. To me, equal rights and equal opportunity for women is about having the option, not about being coerced to take a certain option.

    I did enjoy the article though. I think it is an important conversation.

    1. Both you and Jamie have read my mind! There’s a lot I have to say about Gen X lawyers, which I do in my upcoming column in next month’s Chicago Lawyer magazine. I completely agree with you both about being the forgotten generation that started many of the trends Millennials have taken credit for. Here’s the beginning of what I wrote – we’ll repost the whole article in January after it’s been published in the magazine:

      “This year, an enormous milestone took place. The oldest members of Generation X turned 50 years old. Did you see the newscast? Watch the documentaries? Listen to the pundits? No. Because none of those happened. Unlike the cavalcade of hot takes that accompanied the Baby Boomers’ entry into middle age, the only sound that greeted Gen X’s entry was that of crickets.

      Generation X. The generation born between 1965 and 1979 has now become Generation Forgotten. There’s a great song in a great movie. The movie is The Breakfast Club and the song of course is Don’t You (Forget About Me). The song typifies a common feeling from Generation X – the forgotten generation. For a brief moment in time, Gen X was the “It” generation. However with marketing and news focused on the clash between two very large and different generations, Millennials and Baby Boomers, there is a sense that Gen X has to wave their hands in the air and say, “Hey, we’re still here. Don’t forget about us.”

  3. Hi, Michelle! I’m another Gen X’er (1974) weighing in here. I’ve been an attorney since 2000. But, I’ve also been married since 1999, had my first child at age 32 and my second at 35. I’ve worked in government the entire time, so I’ve not been rich or traditionally driven like I’d imagine a corporate attorney might be. Don’t get me wrong, I often become wistful and wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Once long ago, my mother-in-law actually told me that I wasn’t grabbing hte brass ring after haven gone to that gold-plated law school. I don’t know the answer. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure I’m equipped to mentor younger attorneys, because my career path may not be desirable to most.

    1. Hi Courtney – Don’t count yourself out! I’ve met attorneys, government and non-, who either took a similar path or are considering it. Particularly with many lawyers starting law school later in life as well. If you’re interested in finding a mentoring program with your organization, let me know. We have a statewide mentoring program (which gives you 6 hours of PR-CLE credit) and I know the participating organizations are always looking for mentors. Perhaps your employer or bar association participates? Feel free to email me at michelle.silverthorn@2civility.org if you would like some information. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure everyone wonders if they’ve taken the right path in life, no matter what path it is.

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