Lessons from Current Female Leaders for the Up-and-Coming Generation
As a young woman preparing to launch my career, few experiences are more useful than hearing from women from a variety of countries and professional fields who have made it into prominent positions. Such an opportunity presented itself at a women’s lunch on diversity during the German Marshall Fund’s annual Brussels Forum in June.
Despite the range of ages, countries of origin, professional sectors, and racial-ethnic identities displayed by the group, the gathering illustrated common primary barriers that most women on their way to leadership positions had to overcome. The primary issues discussed included the effects of motherhood and caretaking on one’s career, the necessity for peer support in the workplace, and age discrimination.
Motherhood and Caretaking
First, participants agreed that the expectations of motherhood and caretaking as well as a general lack of political will to prioritize matters related to women contributed to their feeling of being disadvantaged compared to male colleagues.
While American women expressed their feelings about the impact of private life on work, such as in the battle to receive longer paid maternity leave, many assumed that European mothers are in a significantly better situation when in fact, the latter are not satisfied with their maternity leave or childcare policies either. Long absences from work slow down their career progress and, as one Hungarian participant, remarked, there is maternity leave but it is not adequately paid, which makes it problematic for women and families. She added that Hungary’s traditionalist, conservative culture, now further bolstered by the current populist political regime, creates little space for conversations about gender equality.
In Europe and the United States, it is clear that family and career are intertwined, regardless of age, race, or profession. A participant from Greece’s government explained to the group that employers in her country tend to promote equality on the surface, but still favor hiring men since it is expected that women will want to have children and will experience setbacks in their careers as a result. Even where policies to assist female professionals have been implemented, enforcement remains a huge problem. In some European countries, implementing quotas has helped to increase gender parity, but in Greece, these policies remain obsolete due to a lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms.
It was comforting to observe a compassionate discussion about shared challenges among transatlantic professionals. It was disheartening, though, to see that there is still a lack of solutions to this issue that affects all women (regardless of their desire to become mothers).
Women in Europe and the United States are still battling to solve this issue because most governments have not prioritized it. The discussion highlighted the necessity for a comprehensive approach to work-life balance for women—one that includes not only better-paid maternity leave but also policies that allow fathers to take on childcare responsibilities. This problem will likely require different solutions in each country. Spain’s government, for example, has focused on balancing parenting responsibilities through creating paternity leave policies. In the United States, the federal and state governments have made little progress on incorporating mothers into the workforce, especially at the national level, but more private companies than ever offer more paid maternity leave than is legally required.
Whether the eventual solution relies more on buy-in from governments and employers or focuses on revamping parental support systems such as daycare and kindergarten programs (or other useful policies that have yet to be fully embraced), the next generation of female leaders needs to be ready to step up regarding this issue. Mothers from my generation (those born between 1981 and 1996) account for the vast majority of births in the United States, but they also wait longer to have children, especially when the women are educated and working. It will be my generation’s responsibility to pressure lawmakers to address the consequences of caretaking on women’s careers, which includes linking issues such as maternity leave with gender parity. Part of our role, too, should be demanding greater transparency from governments and employers regarding how women’s careers are affected by different policies. Social media can be a primary outlet for sharing information and tracking progress on these issues.
Second, several participants spoke about the importance of having support. To my surprise, the emphasis on this point was unrelated to mentorship or the willingness of bosses to support female empowerment. Instead, the women present felt that having peer networks, including those working below them, had often been most influential and inspiring for them. This is a crucial message for someone my age, especially because connections with mentors, bosses, and older colleagues are often emphasized as being the most important for young professionals’ advancement.
I have reframed my own mindset and started to recognize the value of peer-coworker relationships. It is vital to seek advice from women who are senior in age and position, especially with regard to navigating work-life balance challenges, because those women can speak from learned experience. Men who have juggled professional and personal responsibilities throughout their career would also be helpful counselors. However, women of my generation should be mindful about the benefits of cultivating strong peer networks as well—after all, these are the young women we are truly “in the trenches” with and who can offer unique, everyday support that senior-level women may lack the capacity to provide. These are also the peers against whom we compete for jobs, but that fact does not strip away the value of peer relationships. If anything, the dual sisterhood-competitor reality of the female coworker environment motivates me to work harder on cultivating relationships with my colleagues.
Third, one participant mentioned how she had been discriminated against due to age. She spoked about an interaction with her superior in which he indicated that her age was holding her back in her career, implying that she had the necessary experience, but would not be taken seriously because she was too young. This story affected me not only because I am a young graduate student but also because this participant has a job that most American women with an interest in foreign affairs have dreamed of having. If someone is capable enough to reach her high-ranking position of foreign policy advisor for the U.S. government, I would not expect them to be held back due to their age.
Before this lunch, I often thought of my age as an advantage. A feeling of excitement often accompanies being part of the “next generation,” and I am comforted by knowing that I have time to accomplish my goals. This woman’s story, though, taught me that being ahead of the game can also be a drawback. In her words, there is no remedy for this situation; women have to be prepared to combat multiple layers of discrimination—gender, age, race, etc. However, maintaining strong relationships with female colleagues of all levels impacted her career for the better.
A strong network of peers can motivate powerful women to push through during periods of difficulty. One staffer from the U.S. Congress relayed that her group of informal allies at work, most of whom are women and also members of ethnic minorities, has helped her career simply by sharing information about office politics. When obstacles due to her race or gender seemed insurmountable, these coworkers encouraged her to keep going.
Positive changes that inspire young women like me are the result of long-term efforts, with individuals, institutions, and systems needing to change and to be willing to do something. The record numbers of women now serving in the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress is a welcome step in the right direction, making women more visible. In the United States, 117 women were elected to Congress last year (up from 89 in the 2016 elections), bringing the total number of women serving to 127. Europeans have also shown a willingness to elect more females, voting in a record number of members of the Europan Parliament earlier this year. These changes affect my self-confidence and give me hope that future laws and policy decisions will include female perspectives.
Progress is the sum of many, often silent, efforts to promote women. What events like the discussion at GMF offer is the opportunity to make sure that efforts to effect change do not go unnoticed. For example, Julie Smith, the former director of the Center for a New American Security presented the new leadership council for women in national security initiative that she cofounded. The organization has created a pledge that urges candidates in the 2020 U.S. presidential election to seek gender parity when appointing leaders in national security. Work like this illustrates the importance of connecting with other women, getting men on board, and committing to change things.
Smith’s work also demonstrates the fact that women ultimately have to make, find, and demand space for themselves. What is clear from this group of women’s experiences is that communication, peer networks, and perseverance must not be underestimated. I will approach some aspects of my professional life differently as a result of the gathering: taking time to learn about the stories of successful women to collect their tools for combating obstacles, prioritizing my relationships with peers in my professional realm, and demanding systems change within the organizations where I work to contribute to greater gender equality.
What inspires me most about this group of women is that, despite achieving remarkable success in each of their careers, they refuse to settle for the status quo.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.