I recently got the chance to speak with Laura Youngkin, the founder of The Brave Millennial. This organization brings together women between the ages of 22 and 35 to discuss the challenges they face as young professionals and brainstorm ways to overcome them. In doing so, Laura hopes to empower millennial women to leverage storytelling as a means of changing the way they are viewed in the workplace.
Laura was inspired to start The Brave Millennial after spending a decade in the workforce and observing how her experience and that of her fellow millennial women differed from that of her peers and colleagues.
In the conversation below, Laura reveals the unique obstacles that millennial women face and explains what actions they, their coworkers and their managers can take to set millennial women up for success.
Why did you decide to start The Brave Millennial?
A few reasons. First, I want to take back the term “Millennial” and make it something positive. I’m over the tired narrative that Millennials are something to groan about. Secondly, I saw first-hand how sexism and ageism in the corporate world was holding back talented Millennial women and I wanted to do something about that. I wanted to create a safe space for Millennial women to tell their stories and come up with actionable solutions to address these issues. So far, I’m thrilled with the territory we’ve covered in our sessions. I saw first-hand how sexism and ageism in the corporate world was holding back talented Millennial women.
I saw first-hand how sexism and ageism in the corporate world was holding back talented Millennial women.
What unique challenges do millennial women face in the workplace?
Millennials in general are up against a stereotype that undermines their value. Every generation has its ins and outs, of course, but I feel that most of the heat and criticism focused on Millennials is unwarranted and incorrect. It feeds a narrative that says that millennials are lazy, entitled, and only out for themselves, which I don’t think is true on a large scale. There are lazy and entitled people of every age! It’s not just one group.
Millennial women, in particular, are up against barriers that don’t impact their male peers in the same way. Between a national culture that doesn’t view or value women as true equals, and a workforce that underestimates their value, capabilities, and potential, young and hard-working women are still not achieving career advancement and compensation on par with men. There is good news, though! We’re the most educated group of women in American history, which makes us a huge asset to our employers, to our communities, and to our economy. American women are outpacing men in higher education 4 to 1, so there’s a huge talent pool emerging that I know will make a massive change in the performance of our economy. Because of conscious and unconscious bias, companies are often slower to champion young women.
Because of conscious and unconscious bias, companies are often slower to champion young women.
Unfortunately, because of conscious and unconscious bias, companies are often slower to champion young women. They’re perceived as riskier investments. Young women are constantly critiqued in ways that men aren’t, such as on our appearance and our voice. We’re also judged more harshly than men for displaying the same behaviors. When men exhibit traits like leadership and ambition, they’re usually praised, but for women, those traits make us “overly confident,” “pushy”, or even “bitchy.”
All of that means that women have to work harder to prove that they can be trusted to handle important responsibilities. Young men are promoted based on their potential, whereas women are often promoted after they’ve already proven what they can do. I think we can do better for half of our population.
You paint a pretty grim picture of what it’s like to be a millennial woman in the workforce. What tools do these young women have at their disposal to combat the bias they experience?
It’s not grim everywhere, but my research has shown me how grim it is for many millennial women across our country. Luckily, there are many ways to combat bias at work. The first thing to do – and this almost goes without saying – but the first thing is to excel in your role. Work hard and perform well. Pay attention to how others perceive you. There will be times where you’ll need to tailor your approach to your team or your audience. You should also do all you can to highlight the achievements of other Millennial women in your office, and yourself. The only way to fight false or negative narratives is to replace them with truthful and positive narratives.
The only way to fight false or negative narratives is to replace them with truthful and positive narratives.
This is why storytelling is so important. Too often, false perceptions and narratives become reality, especially in competitive workplace cultures where bias (both conscious and unconscious) is prevalent. The only way to fight false or negative narratives is to replace them with truthful and positive narratives. Positive narratives build trust and encourage people to lift each other up, rather than engage in negative workplace gossip.
Learn to get comfortable with speaking up for yourself and make sure you get credit for your ideas and contributions. Find ways to highlight the accomplishments of others, and they will likely be willing to do the same for you. As the old adage goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Everyone benefits.
For women in overt discriminatory situations, I encourage them to keep track of comments, situations, emails, etc. that prove you have experienced bias at work. Then, find a new job as quickly as you can.
Can storytelling serve middle and upper management as well?
Absolutely! Flexing that “storytelling” muscle helps everyone to become more comfortable with their own voice and more confident in their communication style. That can play a big role in improving collaboration and negotiation skills. Brands that have a strong story succeed. Your story is the best marketing tool you have.
Brands that have a strong story succeed. Your story is the best marketing tool you have.
Managers have the authority and ability to use storytelling to craft and improve company culture. Even if all the entry-level employees at a company are trying to promote this type of transparent and supportive culture, it won’t gain traction if it’s not valued at the highest level. Leaders need to take responsibility for owning culture and acting on it consistently.
Why is company culture so important?
Culture is king right now, and people who feel supported by their company are happier, more balanced and more productive. Without a healthy workplace culture, employees tend to burn out or move on, making it difficult for managers to retain their best talent. Companies who treat their employees well tend to outperform their competitors, which is why you see so many progressive Fortune 500 companies investing in their employees and culture in a major way. They know it’s good for business.
Culture and storytelling is also important when you’re trying to build a customer base. Your story and your culture are your brand, and brands that have a strong story succeed. Think about TOMS. That brand started with a story, and people love being a part of it. The story built trust in the brand and fostered a connection between the company and the consumer. Your story is the best marketing tool you have.
What kind of culture are millennial women looking for?
Most millennials value mission and meaning over money, which is why they gravitate towards companies that care about social impact and are known for treating their employees well. I don’t think there’s a bonafide checklist; it really comes down to opportunity, responsibility, and growth. Most millennials value mission and meaning over money, which is why they gravitate towards companies that care about social impact.
Most millennials value mission and meaning over money, which is why they gravitate towards companies that care about social impact.
Millennial women want to be considered for the same opportunities as their male peers, they want their qualifications to carry equal weight, and they want to be paid equally for the same work. They also crave responsibility and ownership over their work. Oftentimes, when I meet with leaders and managers I hear the complaint that “millennials are just worried about getting promoted.” I can see why there’s a misunderstanding there. In many current corporate hierarchies, the only way to access ownership and autonomy in your work is to get a promotion. Many of the Millennials I talk with aren’t after fancy titles or frequent promotions, they just want their managers to trust them with their assignments and give them the space, and the ownership, to do the job. This also means giving them space to fail, learn, and grow.
Culture and perks are two different things, by the way. Perks like free lunch, flex time, fancy phones, and napping pods are all awesome, but they don’t build trust or create culture. Only leadership can do that.
What can managers do to set Millennial women up for success?
Managers have so many great tools at their disposal. Managers are promoters. So if nothing else, managers set all of their Millennial reports up for success by promoting and championing them through storytelling. Give them opportunity to grow and then support them by reinforcing the narrative with their team and project leaders. And as we’ve already touched on, it’s a great tool for learning and development. Since raises and promotions usually involve multiple decision-makers and need multiple sign-offs, managers can leverage storytelling as a promotional tool to help get everyone’s buy-in and raise the profile of their best performers.
How can managers ensure that their direct reports give them sincere, straightforward answers?
In this context, storytelling can be synonymous with honest communication. Managers should ask questions designed to elicit honest answers, such as: “Are you being challenged?” “Are you receiving credit for your work?” “Have you been promoted on par with your performance?” “Do you feel you are being compensated fairly?” “What can we do to set you up for success?” If you embrace millennial women now, your company will benefit from that decision over the next five, 10 or 20 years.
If you embrace millennial women now, your company will benefit from that decision over the next five, 10 or 20 years.
Millennial women who get asked those questions will feel more valued by their managers, and consequently empowered and inspired in their roles. I have personally benefited from senior leaders who were willing to ask me those tough questions and then take action to help set me up for success. Managers also gain important insights into their team and are better able to tap into unrealized potential.
What are the advantages of investing in millennial women?
Studies show that companies who have more women in leadership roles perform better. If you embrace millennial women now, your company will benefit from that decision over the next five, 10 or 20 years. That’s a fantastic incentive!
The bottom line is that no matter the industry, ambitious and aspirational Millennial women want to succeed in their careers. They are intelligent, articulate and hardworking people who are worth your time. They are essential to our future.