I continue to explore the intersection of gender and generations. I have posted about how the similarities and areas of tension among the generations differ for women vs men. I have written about conflict that involves women of different generations – including conflict between more senior women (women bosses) and their female subordinates. I want to explore what values and perspectives of women in general are shared with those of the younger generations (Gen X and Millennial).
Cultural changes have caused younger generations to have much in common with what women have valued and needed for at least three generations. Over the last century, our views have evolved on gender roles, what women can and should do and how families divide the work. Women Traditionals (other than the blip during World War II for Rosie the Riveter) generally divided labors with their husbands; he had a job while she worked as mother and homemaker. If they worked outside the home, middle class women were secretaries, teachers and nurses; few were lawyers, surgeons or senators. Baby Boomers saw the advent of birth control and the opening of choice – stay at home, build a career or try to have it all.
Members of Gen X had “career moms”; they knew they would have choices, new to their mothers, of how to balance family and work. And they knew they would do it differently. Rather than “work-life balance,” they would insist on “life-work balance.” Often Gen X women have married men (who also had career moms) who share the work of raising children and caring for the household. Millennials grew up seeing women as Secretaries of State, Supreme Court Justices and a Presidential candidate. Millennial men – who have competed with girls in school and on the job and have had women bosses – are likely to see women as equals.
As a result of these changes in gender roles, younger generations are natural allies with women on “work-life balance” issues and have more evolved views on the potential of women. Interestingly, they also exhibit more balance between masculine and feminine ways of thinking and working. My book Difference Works establishes a common definition of masculine vs. feminine approaches in 10 different dimensions of work. It explores the masculine-feminine continuum in 10 areas, including how we communicate, handle conflict, structure things, make decisions and view relationships. In two dimensions of the continuum, how we structure things and how we view workplace relationships, men from the younger generations are more likely than those of the two older groups to demonstrate feminine approaches.
Traditionals and Boomers observe and honor hierarchical structures – a masculine form. Members of Gen X and Millennials tend to value hierarchy less and prefer flatter, more networked (feminine) structures. Traditionals and Boomers established a masculine norm of workplace relationships based on role and position. The younger generations seek more personal relationships at work, characteristic of a feminine value for more intimate connections.
So there is reason to believe that the needs, values and perspectives of women in general have a lot in common with those of Gen X’rs and Millennials. Can this combination result in a critical mass to advocate for a kind of workplace where both men and women can reach their potential — and thrive?
Women often tell me their worst boss has been a woman. Perhaps because most of us have had fewer women bosses than men bosses, we tend to generalize – paint all women bosses with the same brush – by saying things like, “Women are lousy bosses.” If we have had a bad male boss, we don’t think “all men are lousy bosses.”
Women who treat other women badly give us all a bad name. Ask someone what they have observed about women working together and you may hear about sabotage, cattiness or Queen Bees (women who make it to the top and “pull up the ladder,” to mix metaphors). I include an appendix in my book, and wrote an article for Forbes WomensMedia, on the topic of why women sometimes do not support other women (and how important it is for women to support both more junior and more senior women).
In the case of women with “bad” women bosses, there is often a generational difference. Usually the more senior woman is older, maybe a Baby Boomer, while the subordinate is a member of Gen X or a Millennial. We know about inter-generational tensions; each generation tends to hold judgments about other generations. I recently wrote about the intersection of gender and generational differences. I focused on how inter-generational tensions surface among women in particular. Women judge other women about choices about having children, using day care or the priority given to career. They judge other women about how they dress or look.
These particular kinds of conflict among women seem to have greater intensity than the generational conflicts among men. In general, though, tensions between a subordinate woman and her female boss have more to do with gender than generational differences. Most workplaces are modeled on hierarchy, a masculine form. Women tend to be more comfortable in a flatter, more networked structure. Women can do odd things when placed in a hierarchical relationship with another woman – like try to pull her back down to our level. As noted by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In and in “The Confidence Gap” in Atlantic Magazine, women tend to act with less confidence or self-assertion. The tendency by women to diminish their own worth rather than toot their horn may contribute to a general (unconscious) sense that women do not “deserve” to be in the top positions. Women, like men, in the U.S. are influenced by a culture that generally supports that notion.
Conflict among women at different levels in the organization is much more complex than just the issues that drive inter-generational conflict. These are deeply rooted gender issues that just happen to show up in an inter-generational context.
Do you agree?
I am female and a Baby Boomer. I know that how I see things and my values are not the same as for all women or all Baby Boomers. But I tend to understand the perspectives of both women and Boomers in general. I see that in general there are differences in the values and perspectives of women Traditionals, Baby Boomer, Generation X’rs and Millennials. This is where two areas of difference in today’s workplace, gender and generation, intersect.
What are the commonalities among women of the four generations in today’s workplace? What areas of tension or conflict might be different or more intense for women than men of different generations?
Women of the four generations have lots in common. Differences in masculine and feminine perspectives and behaviors do not change much over the course of a generation or three. My book Difference Works explores the characteristics of masculine vs. feminine approaches in 10 different dimensions of work, including how we communicate, structure things, make decisions, view relationships and use humor. Women of all generations are more likely than their male counterparts to operate on the feminine side of the masculine-feminine continuum in these areas. They share this preference for (or understanding of) feminine ways of thinking, working and leading.
Some values and needs of women cut across the generations. Women of all generations, as a whole, have wanted the ability to have both career and family – to have flexibility or “balance” and pursue a non-linear career. Because of changes in gender and family roles, men Gen X’rs and Millenials share these needs. And yet this is also a source of tension among older and younger working women.
Until the 1960’s, middle class women’s lives were very similar. Each generation has had more choices about how to balance work and family. Women, unfortunately, sometimes judge other women who have made choices different from their own – about having children, using day care or the priority given to career. In what is called the “mommy wars,” Boomer women who struggled to “have it all” judge Gen X or Millenial moms for working part time or not working. Boomer career women are judged by younger women for making the “wrong” choice. I have never seen this area of choice be a source of dissension among men!
Generational differences lead to misunderstanding and conflict among the four age groups independent of gender. Hard-working Boomers of both genders judge Millennials for not having the right “work ethic.” They scratch their heads at the informality of the attire of younger workers. In these areas women seem to experience the conflict more intensely.
- Just as women divide over their choices about balancing work and family, Boomer women may judge younger women for not working enough hours — and women Gen X’rs and Millenials may judge Boomer women for working too much!
- Boomer women may resent younger women for wearing casual or revealing attire. In their early careers, women Boomers may have felt that “fitting in” and succeeding in the business world required that they play down their femininity. They fear that the casual, revealing attire of the younger generations threatens or dishonors the progress women have made.
Can awareness of these and other commonalities — and sources of conflict — help women be more supportive of women of older and younger generations?