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Gen Y Women: Challenges for Attraction and Retention

By Melissa J. Anderson

What do Gen Y Women want in the workplace? According to a recent Young Careerist study by the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation, that answer is difficult to pin down.

The reason, the study [PDF] showed, is because the “Gen Y women” group is made up of a diverse cross-section of individuals, who do not have a unified set of values and ambitions. While study participants did have a few commonalities – such as a desire for flexibility and concern about gender discrimination – the BPW Foundation suggested that employers work hard to avoid pigeon-holing Gen Y women into particular career tracks based on preconceived notions.

Dr. Sheila Barry‐Oliver, Chair of the BPW Research and Education Committee, explained, “Far too often Gen Y women are treated as a homogenous group with monolithic perspectives. BPW Foundation’s research questions such views, highlighting how Gen Y women’s workplace expectations and experiences differ by occupation, employer type, compensation type and presence of children.”

She added, “Exploring key areas of social difference is vital to understanding Gen Y women’s workplace challenges and opportunities.”

A Few Commonalities

One similarity that the study pointed out was a desire for work/life flexibility. But in fact, the study pointed out, this desire for work/life flexibility was not centered around issues of child-rearing. The women who participated in the study desired flexibility regardless of whether they had children, and many mentioned other interests and responsibilities that were not family-related.

This could be a challenge for employers, though, the study said. “Because work-life balance policies and programs often preference workers with children, formal or informal rules may preclude Gen Y women without children from work-life balance programs.”

Additionally, the study revealed, Gen Y women still see gender discrimination as an issue they must contend with in the workplace today. Seventy-seven percent said it was a moderate or severe problem. Almost 50% said they had seen or experienced gender discrimination personally at work.

Of those who had seen or experienced gender discrimination, the most common forms reported were issues stemming from unconscious bias, such as stereotyping (63%), unequal pay (60%), and not being treated as an equal (58%).

Yet, a sizeable portion of those women also reported sexist jokes (38%) and sexual harassment (31%).

Finally, of those women who said they had seen or experienced gender discrimination at work, 51% also said they experienced age discrimination.

Advice for Employers

BPW advises employers that first and foremost they must address workplace “flexibility, equality, and inclusivity” as a business necessity. Next, they must also avoid stereotyping – Gen Y women in the workplace have a variety of diverse career motivations. And workplaces must examine their own assumptions about what a high-performing employee should look like. The study says, “The research indicates a need to examine work-place assumptions about characteristics of the “ideal worker” and aspects of “life” addressed and who is included (or excluded) in workplace policies and programs.”

BPW Foundation CEO Deborah L. Frett explained, “Employers cannot afford to ignore the challenges that Gen Y women face in the workplace. Continuing challenges related to work‐life balance and especially to gender and age discrimination have profound business implications. Promoting workplace cultures and practices that embrace equality, flexibility, and inclusivity are imperative for the success and sustainability of business.”

She continued, “For instance, to meet Gen Y women’s work‐life balance demands, employers need to move beyond programmatic responses and critically examine their assumptions about the characteristics of the ‘ideal worker.’ Often the ‘ideal worker’ is a person who is available anytime, anywhere and for as long as the employer needs. Gen Y women are largely rejecting this notion. They are refusing to mistake their job for their life.”

Finally, the study suggests working with Gen Y women to determine their career goals and desires to ensure they are receiving the support and encouragement they need.

“Gen Y women identified five features that enable them to do their best at work: understanding goals and expectations; open communication channels; encouragement from co-workers and supervisors; having their voice heard; and understanding roles and responsibilities. Efforts to enable Gen Y women to perform their best work must address key dimensions of difference that impact workplace experiences and relationships.”

By keeping the lines of communication open, employers can best position themselves to attract and retain women within this diverse group.

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