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The longer women work, the gloomier they get about advancement

For young women who grew up believing the glass ceiling had been shattered, equality can be harder to find in practice than in policy.
/ Source: NBC News

For young professional women who grew up believing the glass ceiling had been shattered, time brings the realization that equality can be harder to find in practice than in policy.

“I think, broadly, the marketplace is so much more aware of how important it is to take your high potential talent, regardless of male or female, and nurture it,” said Gloria Larson, president of Bentley University. “How do you translate that into nuts and bolts practices that actually support it?... Therein lies the issue.”

A survey conducted by Bentley University as part of its PreparedU research initiative found that just over half of millennial women see an “opportunity gap,” and new data from PricewaterhouseCoopers finds that 60 percent of millennial women in the United States feel that, while organizations talk about diversity, there aren’t equal opportunities for everyone.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers data, roughly half of women with an average age of 25 around the globe believe they’ll able to rise to the most senior levels with their current employer, but that figure drops 10 percentage points, down to 39 percent, by the time they hit their 30s.

“I think maybe they get a little more realistic,” said Anne Donovan, human capital transformation leader at the company. “As women are around longer, they realize there are less role models to look to, there might be less fairness or less perceived fairness.”

Wanted: high-level role models

A high-level role model would help AnneMarie Cucci. The 24-year-old, who works in college administration in New York, said her ultimate career goal was to become a dean or vice president, but she acknowledged that competition is fierce, and many of the top slots still are filled by men.

“There are definitely more women in this field. They’re just not moving up. I think it’s probably because of the family expectation,” she said.

In pursuing her goal, Cucci is applying to an accelerated doctorate program, and she has already been confronted with questions about balancing work and family.

“There actually isn’t a strong role model I’ve seen of how to juggle that,” she said. “People have said, ‘What about getting married or having kids?’ and I just don’t think men ever get that question,” Cucci said. “For a woman, it’s expected that she’s considering that.”

Cucci’s frustration at the persistence of outmoded gender norms is typical of her generation, experts say. Millennials, men and women alike, have a reputation for being entitled — a trait that cuts both ways. For young women, it means that they’re entering the workforce with the expectation of an equal playing field and opportunity for advancement.

“I think millennial women are joining organizations with a different expectation,” Donovan said. “They absolutely come in expecting a lot out of organizations.”

But many are finding what’s between the covers of the employee handbook doesn’t always mirror what’s happens in the cubicle or conference room.

'Just a lot of partying'

Morgan Pierce, a 25-year-old who had worked in investor relations for an alternative finance company, said it was jarring in interviews to be asking about if her sorority activities — which included philanthropic drives and social outreach campaigns — were “just a lot of partying.”

“It was one of those things that caught me off guard,” she said. Pierce now works in investor relations for an alternative asset management company that takes a proactive approach to supporting its female employees, including actively seeking more female staffers.

Formal and informal support systems are badly needed to prevent the erosion of confidence that keeps young women from reaching the top of the corporate ladder.

Nearly six in 10 respondents to Bentley’s survey said women are better prepared for their first jobs than men are, but only 31 percent think women are better suited to succeed in today’s business climate — a number that drops to 22 percent for male respondents. Tellingly, even 62 percent of millennial women believe men are better suited to today’s business climate.

“It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Larson said. “Because of the dearth of women higher up the ladder, there just haven’t been enough women… taking that role with young women.”

“I think a lot of times a lot of organizations don’t think about the powerful women that reside inside of their companies,” said Chasity Cooper, a communications associate at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., who wants to work in corporate philanthropy for a professional sports league. “It really challenged me to seek them out.”

Today’s young women are hopeful that attitudes are evolving, even though the pace of change frustrates them. Since that job interview several years ago, Pierce said she could see the industry coming around to a more egalitarian mindset, albeit slowly.

“I think it’s a big transition now and I think it’s moving towards being more female friendly but … I have a feeling it’s a plateau right now,” she said.

Larson agrees. “We’ve picked all the low hanging fruit… everybody gets it now,” she said. She said the next big step is putting the equality-minded ideas out there to work. “Now it’s roll-up-your-sleeves time.”