Women United not Divided: Three Generations of Women
At Doyenne, we’re trying to transform the entrepreneurial ecosystem so that all entrepreneurs have an equal shot. Over the years, we have worked with women entrepreneurs ranging in age from 17 to 70. Doyenne members span three generations: Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials. And, there is a fourth one on the horizon. Gen Z, we see you!
Each generation brings a different set of experiences and strategies for navigating ecosystems that weren’t built for women to succeed. While the world changes around us, our understanding of it and approach for living in it is often forged early in our lives. It can be challenging for one generation to understand the life and logic of another. Unfortunately, this can create frustrations and divisions among women.
BABY BOOMERS: “TELL ME THE RULES AND I WILL BEAT YOU AT YOUR OWN GAME.”
When women first started moving into more formal leadership positions that had historically been closed to them, their approach was often to figure out the rules of the game and then attempt to be better at them than anyone else. The rules were unspoken, unwritten and, to a great extent, inaccessible for women. Once women did figure out the rules, which were designed to uphold male dominance in the corporate world, they discovered they had few strategic moves. A primary one was to “become one of the guys.”
Women found themselves in token positions. They were the only woman on the team, on the board, in an executive position. Being the token woman is damn hard! Research shows levels of discrimination and harassment rise when there are fewer women in the group. Research also shows that when women in leadership advocate for other women to be given opportunities, their male peers see them as less competent. To maintain acceptance, women often had to distance themselves from other women in their organizations — consciously and subconsciously. They needed to present themselves as the exceptional woman, the one who is different.
“I’m not like other women.”
“I prefer to work with men.”
“Never let ‘em see you sweat.”
The implied promise from male leadership was this: “If you act like us, and you do what we say, we will let you keep your role and maybe move up the ladder.” But this is a no-win situation. Women who play by men’s rules typically do not win. There is a double standard — the same behaviors are interpreted completely differently. Men are assertive; women are aggressive. Men are passionate; women are emotional. Men are strategic; women are manipulative.
And, yet, they persisted. Our Baby Boomer women fought and fought and fought to break down barriers. They survived the initial battle to carve out the space for women to move more freely in organizations and to begin dispelling the myths that women can’t lead. Yet, they did so at a great price. Many of these pioneering women sacrificed everything to break through the glass ceiling, hoping that the women who followed them would have an easier time. Many experienced toxic and hostile work environments that had a negative impact on their health and well-being. We are now seeing some of these corporate refugees building ventures that focus on women’s leadership, wellness, company culture, etc. They are healing themselves and hoping to help other women heal.
GEN X: “I WANT TO MAKE THE RULES, NOT JUST ABIDE BY YOURS!”
But change is not that simple. Just because one woman has made it into a position of power no other woman has held, does not mean that all of the systemic barriers to women’s success are removed. People in power love tokens, because they can point to them and say, “We’re not sexist, look at Sue,” or, “We’re not racist, look at Jasmine.”
Then along came Generation X, who quickly became known as the Opt-Out generation. They were the “latch-key” kids of the ‘70s and ‘80s who grew up feeling like they were fending for themselves. The collective narrative at the time focused on how working mothers weren’t good mothers. As they grew up, the saw the toll that toxic, male-dominated work environments take on women and their families. The earned college degrees, including graduate degrees, at higher rates. They began climbing the corporate ladder. But, when it came time to have children, they were “opting out” of the corporate path to be mothers.
When I was in my 30s and having children, my peers were struggling. My generation rejected the notion that you could “have it all” and rejected the traditional “rules of the game” in corporate America. Gen Xers want more than a seat at the table, they want a substantive voice in the design and decisions of the company. They want to make the rules.
While many women did completely opt out of working for a period of time and this was the dominant narrative, the vast majority of Gen Xers experimented with other options. Women started requesting flexible work options, and began asking their male life partners to do more at home than their mothers ever did (though it still isn’t split equally even now). They were crafting “side jobs” as a way of continuing to earn money while also being available for their kids.
“I need work-life balance.”
“I want an equal partner.”
“I don’t want to become a b*%tch like her.”
The tension between Baby Boomers and Gen X women grew. I remember having a conversation with my mother-in-law about this. She described how women of her generation were angry that the younger generation was giving up on the movement. Many Baby Boomers feel betrayed. Many Baby Boomers are scared. The choices of Gen X women seemed like a move backward, not forward. They offer advice in the spirit of “mentoring” and even “protecting” younger women, but their advice is often dated. Their advice is based on navigating their world, not the world the next generation is experiencing. This gap creates tension.
Gen X women feel like Baby Boomer women are oppressing them and silencing them. They feel like it is women leaders who are telling them what they can and cannot say, how they should behave, what they should be happy with and even grateful for. They feel like these women are holding them back even more than men are. And, they are angry about it.
MILLENNIALS: “YOU OWE ME THIS. IT IS NON-NEGOTIABLE.”
And then we had the next wave, the Millennials. This generation is just now moving into leadership positions and just starting to grow families, so it is still early to fully see how their approach will play out. The one thing that seems certain is that this generation of women WILL NOT be silenced. They are speaking up and speaking out in ways that we have not seen. And, they are doing so with a sense of authority and entitlement that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers never really had.
They are expecting and demanding promotions, recognition and opportunities — not just hoping or asking or begging for them. For many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, this approach is absolutely infuriating. The “older” women operate with the notion that you have to earn respect and earn opportunities, and prove yourself first. For Millennial women, the idea that they shouldn’t automatically be respected and valued is crazy. What right do you have to treat me any other way? I am a valuable human being and you need to treat me accordingly.
“I don’t want to be bored.”
“Profit isn’t more important than Purpose”
“Enough is enough.”
While my cultural training as a Gen X woman can find this sense of entitlement confusing, my heart sings. My heart tells me to learn from them as they learn from me. My heart says that progress means truly owning our sense of worth as women without hesitation or question. I also celebrate the way Millennials collaborate and mobilize across boundaries in ways that other generations were never willing or able to do. Their confidence in their own rights and their ability to connect their voice with other voices is going to have a profound impact on the world.
Every generation of women learns to navigate the environment in which they find themselves. Every generation is advancing women’s equality, even if it doesn’t appear that way. Imagine, if instead of battling each other and critiquing each other, women from all generations were united? What if we truly celebrated the beauty of each generation. Baby Boomers broke through walls and continue to do so even as they move into retirement, redefining what that can look like. Gen Xers are creating new rules and new spaces. Millennials are taking no prisoners.
Gen Z… who knows??? Recently, I was with my 12 year-old daughter at Noodles & Co. (one of her favorites). She was wearing her black T-shirt that says “The Future is Female” in bold white letters. The young man taking her order looked her in the eye, and with complete sincerity, said, “I love your T-shirt.” She looked him in the eye and with complete confidence said, “Thank you.”
She inspires me.