The young men are copying their mothers career form rather than their fathers in order to escape the carrier prison. The young women are still fighting to get through the glass ceiling. Both think that companies who articulate initiatives and products specifically aimed at a particular gender are hopeless. Gen Z is releasing themselves from gender – and that demands new strategies for leadership and talent management.
By Emilia van Hauen, published in the biggest Danish business newspaper, Børsen
If you are a woman, what is it that makes you feel like a woman?
Is it your physique? Your name? Your job? Your education? Your husband? Your children? Your girlfriends? Your home? That you gather the whole family around your casseroles? Maybe your stilettoes? Or your period?
The chances are that you feel like a woman, not in relation to you not feeling like a man, because you probably do that a couple of times during a day at work. But because a big part of your identity lies in being female. Whatever that means for you.
If you are a man, what is it that makes you feel like a man?
Is it your physique? Your name? Your job? Your education? Your wife? Your children? Your bank account? Your car? Your watch? Your shirts and suits? Maybe the hair in your nose and ears?
The chances are that you feel like a man by having a crucial part of your identity placed in being a man. Whatever that entails for you.
Both listings contains both contains similarities and differences, and some will be provoked by the fact that I only mention the bank book among the men, and the stews and girlfriends among the women. Because we are in 2021 and not 1921. Nevertheless, several statistics show that some of the old gender stereotypes still inhabit us. Both individually and in society.
I highlight this because there is a gender revolution happening. Especially within the young generations – and this has a direct effect on how they want to be lead in their workplaces.
It shows that generations Y, Z and especially Alpha (born after 2010) is, to a bigger degree, liberated from gender. When I give talks about how to lead, attract and withhold the young generations then one of the questions I get the most often is how to motivate the young generations as a leader. The fact that young people have a more independent relationship with their gender creates some new challenges in the organizations, because as a leader, you can no longer count on motivating either men or women according to the parameters which previously applied.
Both women and now also the young men are checking out of the corporate world, because this world still, to a large extent, has connected their structures to ideas of 15-year career plans, work before privacy, old-fashioned hierarchical struggle and personal power battles. Which is in contrast to what the young generation demands, namely that each task is a creative exciting project, makes sense and has room for the social aspect of life. This tendency has only become more pronounced the last couple of years.
The glass ceiling and the career prison
Sara Louise Muhr, professor of organizational research at Copenhagen Business School published in 2019 the book “Management of gender – How gender stereotypes shape women’s and men’s careers”. This book is based on 150 in-depth interviews with middle and top managers. Muhr identifies the challenges that gender poses for both women and men in relation to both careers and the desire for a home life. In the book she quotes among others, Mads, who works in a large organization and is formally appointed to be a so-called rising star:
“It sometimes feels like a prison, like something I can’t escape. Sometimes I wish I was a woman – or got sick – so I could just get out of it, get away. But I cannot go up to my boss and say that I do not want it anymore. He’s counting on me. What should I say? That I actually just want to be with my kids. He would laugh at me right up in my face.”
Muhr tells how many of the young men in accounting, consulting and legal profession experience that they live in a career prison and that it is initiated by the fact that they are men. In other words, their male body becomes a career destiny which is unfree and overly dominated by values that they themselves do not want to have, but which they feel compelled to live out.
In the other end of the spectrum, far too many women feel that they are still oppressed by the glass ceiling which has been spoken of since the 1980s, but which is still in its best form. Barbara Annis, expert in gender and diversity, and co-author of the book “Work with me” refers to the fact that only 30 percent of the women drop out of their careers because of their families. 68 percent do so because they do not feel appreciated by the workplace, while 65 percent feel excluded from teams and decisions. In short, women check out because they are exhausted by the lack of respect for their reality.
In other words, there is now a need on both sides of the gender to create better conditions for the people who populate the workplaces, so that they experience more balance between the ambitions of the individual, the talents they want to bring into play and the distribution of time and attention between work and private life.
The simple conclusion is that the labour market still is organized according to some values that do not correspond to the ambitions of the young generations. This withholds both the individual woman and man from unfolding their talent, which has the consequence that employers just do not get their talents well enough in play, and thus do not get the surplus of creativity, production and finances that they actually could get. For both genders, staying for long in a workplace thus becomes a city in Utopia, and a constant outflow of resources for the organization.
“Whether I like pussy or dick, whether I like grapes or blueberries – it does not have much to do with my identity.” This is how comedian Lina P puts it to the Danish newspaper BT in 2018, after she surprisingly got into a relationship with a man in 2016. Until then, she was known as a lesbian. Back in 2016 she gave the magazine Here & Now a more stoic and nuanced version of her attitude: “I had not expected to meet a man who was interesting enough. Not because I do not like men, but here was a man I had not experienced before. I had not met a man like him and I have always gone for love. Not gender.”
Linda P is, together with the politician Simon Emil Ammitzbøl-Bille, who was first married to a man and now with a woman, after his husband sadly deceased, two examples of a trend that is becoming normalized among the younger generations. Not only in terms of which gender you are attracted to, but also in terms of how you experience your own gender.
“I draw myself as being without a gender because it should not limit my development.”
This is what one of the informants says in the study on generation Alpha (here defined as born from 2004), which the analyst company Fremtidsfabrikken just released, and which they have worked on for the past six months. They have talked to 32 young people aged 13 to 16. CEO Tanja Hall states that when young people have to draw themselves in the future, they typically draw themselves without a gender. They do not only distance themselves from gender in relation to inequality, but gender in general, which they consider insignificant. Clothes, hair and other classic identity markers become unisex instead. The actor Jaden Smith (the action star Will Smith’s son) is a good example hereof, because he has, among other things, made himself noticed by often showing up in skirts, both because he thinks it’s neat, and because he wants to help create a culture where future generations are not bullied because they do not want to follow gender stereotypes. In short, young people see the abolition of gender as the ultimate expression of opportunity, freedom and prosperity.
“It’s just your generation that has to die!”
How ultimate they think is evident in this statement from one of the young men in the study:
“Gender differences is unproblematic – it’s just your generation that has to die, then the problem disappears with you!” Another young man in the same study had decided on a future as a clothing designer and his father’s immediate reaction to that was to exclaim: “Well… are you gay?” The student mentioned this to show how closed his reality is to the older generation, while that perception would never happen among his peers.
If you are a leader (or parent), you can read this as a clear call for curiosity and openness to be the way forward for young people’s ways of looking at their own careers. And if you are in an organization that would like to address one of the genders, be aware of this: Companies that articulate initiatives and products specifically aimed at a particular gender, such as a tech event for women, are considered to be completely hopeless because they are simply perpetuating that gender stereotype. The young people are used to experimenting with their gender; an option offered by digital platforms. My three sons, all of whom belong to Generation Z, have played Fortnite several times in the form of a female avatar because she was simply the coolest avatar of them all. One could argue that it is limited how much gendered behavior it is possible to experience when playing in such a Battle Royal game. But it nevertheless gives a picture of how the younger generations through the many digital games and platforms have the opportunity to present themselves as a different gender than the sex they were born with, and thus also get some more humanly nuanced experiences than earlier. Which is a contributing factor to their relationship with gender becoming far more fluid than we have seen before.
Relational and productive capital
A final interesting point in the study from Fremtidsfabrikken is that young people do not write off the concepts feminine and masculine; they just do not associate it with a particular gender. In 2014, I wrote an article in the Danish financial times Børsen in which I propose operating with the concepts of relational and productive capital, instead of feminine and masculine, in order to abolish the gender-specific and instead focus on the characteristics associated with the two types of focus regardless of gender. It would be wise for the leaders who want to attract and withhold the Ys, Zs and Alphas to think in terms of characteristics rather than gender, in order to support their desire and need to free themselves from gender.
With industrialization came an all-too-one-sided focus on efficiency and results at the expense of relationships and sociality, which has given us a society today where stress is a public disease and where far too many suffer from anxiety, depression and insomnia. A responsible and modern management makes sure to create a balance between qualities, work life and private life, as well as identity and communities, so that both the quality of life and the creative and innovative power increase in society. By doing this, the organization also becomes far more agile and attractive to young people. And if you are in doubt about how to do it practically, I have a simple piece of advice: