Being a Woman in Generation WHY

I just got off the phone with a teary-eyed friend of mine who recently lost her job. Strangely, she wasn’t being sacked for her performance but rather due to frequent arguments with her boss over how her job should be done. As a young woman in a lower-level position at a predominately male tech company, my friend’s experience encapsulates the difficulties faced by many Gen Y women entering the workforce.

As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg recently presented at the World Economic Forum, while assertive and ambitious men are seen as more likable the more they achieve, the more women achieve and assert themselves, the less likable they become. One particularly discouraging study that Sandberg discusses in her TED talk shows a recent example of these stereotypes at work. When researchers presented students with a case study on a highly successful woman named Heidi and changed the name to Howard for one section of the class, the students rated Howard much higher than Heidi. They believed that Heidi was just as competent as Howard, they didn’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her and they certainly wouldn’t want to work with her.

This study, and many others like it, highlights the fact that to a large degree, women still can’t win. Three decades after we began entering the workforce in mass we’re still seen as ineffective if we conform to our gender stereotypes (nurturing, kind, sensitive) but as “brusque” or “argumentative” if we act assertively and display ambition.

Now let’s take these lovely gender norms and add them to what we know about Generation Y. Or, as I’ve begun to think of us, “Generation Why.” On the positive side, our love of technology has allowed us to Facebook, Tweet, Wikipedia and Quora our way into new knowledge–making us cutting-edge workers in a world increasingly run off of information technology. The other side of this, of course, is that all this information has taught us to frequently question authority and to give feedback to our employers as often as we seek it (which is often).

Though these norms don’t apply to every millennial in America–after all, we are the country’s most diverse workforce–and the workplace gender issues aren’t faced by every women, when you put these two characteristics together, you’ll find a lot of young women like my friend. Women who have been taught from birth to question authority but now are entering a work environment where those queries can all too often be interpreted as being overly assertive and disrespectful. Most of the time the problem isn’t that we don’t respect authority, it’s that we feel as though our employers do not respect us.

While this status-quo is enough to bring anyone to tears–particularly since jobs aren’t so easy to come by for my generation–acknowledging that these gender norms and generational divides exist is the first step to overcoming them.