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Female Millennials overwhelmingly believe that their generation will be the one to move more women into business leadership positions, according to a new study by ManpowerGroup, released Dec. 3.
Male and female executives tend to agree that there remains a stubborn gender gap in top jobs, according to the survey of 222 business leaders from 25 countries, conducted between August and September.
“It’s proven that the problem will not correct itself—we are stuck in a circular conversation,” said Mara Swan, executive vice president of global strategy and talent at ManpowerGroup, a U.S.-based human resources firm. “That’s why we commissioned this report to help turn words into action.”
Women make up more than half the global workforce, but they represent only 25 percent of top leadership jobs, the survey noted. Male CEOs, meanwhile, run 95 percent of the Fortune 500’s largest companies, which account for 26.8 million workers worldwide.
One of the strongest responses came from Millennial business leader, those under age 34, with 97 percent saying they will be the ones to achieve gender parity in workplace leadership.
Especially confident were female Millennials, who were 100 percent certain that theirs will be the generation to close the gender gap. But they were also the most cautious when predicting how fast women can achieve leadership parity, saying they expect it will take 22 years—on average—or an entire generation.
A more optimistic prediction of 14 years came from what the survey called “established male leaders,” those executives in the Baby Boomer generation.
Survey respondents said the biggest barrier to gender equity was “entrenched male culture,” and there was a widely held belief that it’s mostly men who define the standards for measuring and rewarding performance, explained Swan.
Swan, who serves as co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Gender Parity, said the most surprising survey findings were respondents’ passionate interest in gender parity and the acknowledgement of the problem by many male respondents.
Psychology professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, author of Generation Me (Atria Paperback, 2006), noted that women have made great strides over the last 30 years. For instance, she said, they’ve made many gains in careers such as law and medicine, and more women than ever are getting college degrees, including advanced degrees. She said she is not surprised that Millennials are confident that they can reach gender parity at the top levels of commerce.
“Given what we know about Millennials, they’re more extroverted, they’re more confident as a generation because of all the deliberate cheerleading they’ve been given,” said Twenge.
But as a member of Generation X, Twenge pointed to a multitude of data that indicate barriers will remain for women because society continues to place child-rearing responsibilities primarily on them. “Until there’s public policy that addresses universal funded preschool and paid parental leave not just for mothers, it’s not a shock [gender parity] hasn’t happened and will not happen,” she said.
So how can an organization help level the playing field for women when it comes to business leadership jobs?
In the ManpowerGroup survey, 59 percent of leaders said they believe the single most powerful action an organization can take is for the CEO to create “a gender-neutral culture,” which refers to policies and language that avoid distinguishing roles according to a person’s gender. Flexible schedules—especially for women juggling jobs and parenting-- are the key, according to 42 percent of respondents.
The study did not focus on the long-acknowledged gender gap in pay, and Swan expressed surprise that so few female respondents mentioned the need to get into the types of jobs that would help them progress to senior positions, which would also impact their earning potential.
One Millennial, Addie Abrams, age 25, of Davis, Calif., works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on agricultural pest control while finishing her master’s degree in horticulture at the University of California at Davis.
Abrams said she believes gender parity will happen because “the attitudes of my generation are different. We’ve been [taught] by our parents and our schools that girls can do whatever they set their minds to.”
Lisa Petrillo is a freelance writer based in San Diego.
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