Entitled. Lazy girls. Quiet quitters. Those labels and viral TikTok rants might be clever stereotypical jabs but they fall short of reality. Three-quarters of women in their 20s aspire to top leadership positions, according to LeanIn.org and McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2023 report. They aren’t kicking back or taking anything for granted. On the contrary, they are leaning in and challenging outdated, out-of-touch work models that don’t work for them. They want to advance and drive change…under different conditions.
The underlying catalysts for their ambition are as diverse as they are powerful. Emboldened by sea change movements like MeToo, Time’s Up, and Black Lives Matter. Inspired by the record-breaking achievements of Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Barbie. And dismayed by the toll of the we-can-do-it-all mantra of Boomer career women. Yes, 20-something women have raised their expectations for what works at work for them, and employers aren’t prepared.
Young professional women are no longer heads down and simply grateful to be there. They are paying attention.
Paying attention to men holding 60% of manager positions while women hold only 40%. Paying attention to senior women leaving top jobs at record rates for lack of advancement, flexibility, commitment to DEI, manager support, and employee well-being. Paying attention to corporate cultures that don’t hear them, value them, develop them, or pay them equitably. Without employers’ strategic, long-term commitment to rethinking outdated norms, the leadership pipeline will become even leakier – and most companies can’t risk this outcome.
“We don’t want to adapt to corporate America. We want to blow it up,” expressed a 28-year-old marketing manager who participated in one of Equipt Women’s self-leadership programs in 2022. This was further validated through the 100 women (in their 20s and early 30s) I coached in the first half of 2023. Nearly ¾ (74%) expressed being unfulfilled, not thriving, and seeking employment opportunities where investment in their growth, advancement, and overall well-being would be a priority.
That’s unsurprising, given that the lack of career development and advancement is the top reason young women leave their employers. This trumps health and family as the second reason, according to the Work Institute Retention Report 2022.
Yet many employers don’t invest in young talent until they are deemed high potential – or HIPO for short – often after 5-10 years into their careers. This delay is riddled with missed opportunities: it overlooks promising talent that could be revealed sooner, it leaves women unnecessarily flailing in a patriarchal culture, and it builds quiet resentment among women who feel unheard, overlooked, and undervalued. A typical HR executive refrain I heard in dozens of interviews I conducted was, “We don’t invest in early career women because they’re going to leave.”
Given the evidence, they leave because employers don’t invest.
This delayed investment strategy has “worked” for decades because women were boxed in, blindly loyal, or willing to be patient. No longer. The emerging generation of women has learned from the past and is more demanding and entrepreneurial. In other words, they have options. According to a 2022 Microsoft survey, 48% of Gen Z supplement their day jobs with side hustles to fuel their purpose, passion, and income. And, a WP Engine study revealed that 62% of Gen Z respondents said they plan or possibly plan to start their own business in the future (more than any other prior generation). Every organization needs to attract, develop, and retain young women because research shows they create a better work environment, contribute to greater profitability, enhance employers’ reputations, and uncover powerful market insights.
Here are 6 actionable strategies that can bridge the expectations gap.
1. Expand onboarding. Move beyond assimilating new hires to providing ongoing support for soft skill development, navigating workplace dynamics, confidence-building, and mentorship.
2. Reveal career path possibilities. Show avenues for growth and upward mobility and provide exposure to other functions and departments, stretch assignments, and periodic access to senior leaders.
3. Establish coaching cohorts. Create psychologically safe peer cohorts supported by emotionally intelligent coaches who provide guidance to self-advocate, manage up, negotiate, set boundaries, manage stress, avoid burnout, influence others, and role-play.
4. Enact a “leaders speak last” policy. Invert meeting protocol so new, young, and introverted voices are heard early and often.
5. Provide professional development stipends. Empower continuous learning autonomy with funds to purchase books, subscriptions, and industry memberships, and support participation in leadership groups, online courses, conferences, and continuing education.
6. Evolve managers into coaches. Train managers to help them listen more deeply, build trust, ask better questions, give constructive feedback, guide without dictation, and provide development opportunities.
Young professional women are enlightened in ways we have never seen before, and their expectations are creating a new hurdle for employers to overcome.
Doing so will require acknowledgment, empathy, and a new kind of support: We see you. We need you. We’re investing in you.