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Why today's young women have little interest in rising to the top

August 18th, 2013 by

Forget the corner office - a new survey uncovers some surprising reasons about why there aren't as many women in the boardroom


We’ve heard it all before: there just isn’t enough pink in corporate boardrooms. As of 2012, more than 16 percent of Fortune 500 companies were led by women. That’s more than any other time in history. It’s something to celebrate. It’s progress. But it’s still a pretty small number.

So what’s going on here? All kinds of data has attempted to sort out this imbalance by analyzing what companies are doing wrong, what’s wrong with society, even what’s wrong with women, but a recent survey by Zeno Group Canada took a new approach to this topic by asking women about their professional ambitions.

What the respondents to this survey said came as a bit of a surprise. As it turns out, only 20 percent of Millennial women had any interest in being an executive at a prominent organization at all, and a scant 6 percent aspired to be top dog.

If you think that makes women out to be less ambitious - or even less confident - than their male co-workers, you’re on the wrong track. We talked to three successful working women about their views on the data.

Real-life views on the surprising data

  • Why don’t today’s young women want those top executive jobs?

“I looked at the data in a more positive way,” says Rumeet Billan, an entrepreneur and president of Jobs in Education. “Maybe [women] realize that they don’t have to be in the top position to lead. They can lead from any position in an organization.”

“Young people as a whole have reframed their definition of success to incorporate characteristics that aren’t necessarily about being at the top of an organization, like work-life balance and work that you’re passionate about,” says Lauren Friese, the founder of TalentEgg. “Being at the top for the sake of being at the top or for monetary reward just doesn’t rank as high.”

The data seems to bear this out. Thirty-eight percent of women said they wanted rewarding or interesting work, but weren’t necessarily interested in leading others. Another 9 percent said they value being able to work creatively over career cachet.

  • But don’t women have to make more personal sacrifices than men when it comes to career goals?

According to the survey, 87 percent of Millennial women believe that women have to make more personal sacrifices to secure a top job than men do. Interestingly, the women we talked to didn’t see that as an entirely bad thing.

“I think women make more sacrifices, but they also know how to juggle more things than men,” Angela Aiello, a wine columnist, radio host, and the founder of iYellow Wine Club said. “We have more callings on the home side. That challenges us to build a career, keep its momentum, and make it flexible at the same time. There are more obstacles, but there are also more opportunities.”

“I think regardless of who you are, there’s always an opportunity cost for any decision you make,” Billan said. “I’ve made certain sacrifices for my work, but I don’t see them as sacrifices because those are my decisions to make.”

Friese, whose mother is a successful entrepreneur in her own right, says she doesn’t agree that women have to give up more to get to the top.

“I think as part of a couple, it doesn’t have to be the woman who makes the sacrifices. It’s all about balance and what works. My family had a different balance...and I was really lucky to see that,” Friese said.

  • So, is there anything holding women back?

Survey respondents cited all kinds of reasons why they thought women were less able to get ahead, including the inability to balance work and family (24 percent), lack of self-confidence (19 percent) and even lack of education or skills (10 percent). But when it came to what it took to succeed, the women we talked to cited one major factor: having a role model.

“I’d say that mentors are the single most important factor that has helped me become a professional woman. Sometimes, books don’t teach you those things,” said Aiello, who relies on both male and female advisors.

While just under half of the Millennial women surveyed have a mentor, those who do are more likely to feel like they can achieve their professional goals; they were also half as likely to say that lack of self-confidence was holding them back.

Redefining success 

Rather than seeing the survey results as a failure, Bilan, Friese and Aiello all believe that Millennial women have created their own definition of success, one that doesn’t necessarily come with a gold nameplate.

“I think the survey wrongly implies that taking on a leadership position is a positive thing, whereas not having a leadership position is a negative thing,” Friese said. “The important thing is that people feel they have the opportunity to choose either way, and that there are no barriers to choosing.”

Billan put it this way: “We’re in a space where we can create our own path. That might be as an entrepreneur or that might be working within an organization. Not wanting to be a top leader doesn’t mean that people don’t want to make change and lead. It’s about creating a path that works for you.”

Jun 28 2017 10:36pm
Shay Brown
I like the angle this article took...spinning what most people see as a negative into a positive. I think the Millennial generation is all about creating a lifestyle. Work to live not live to work. As part of this generation and as an ambitious female business woman I want the opportunity to pursue whatever path I so choose. Do what makes you happy, not everyone wants to be the top dog.
Aug 19 2013 1:01pm

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