Millennial Women Will Redefine Corporate Leadership

In 2008, as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought for the Democratic presidential nomination, many baby boomer women did not understand how a majority of their millennial daughters and granddaughters could support a man against the first woman in history with a realistic chance of winning the White House.

In reality, the readiness of these young women to base their votes on something other than the sex of the candidates was a sign of their strength and self-determination. Bolstered by legislation such as Title IX, which required equality of the sexes in the administration of public education, those boomers created a cohort of high-achieving, confident young women.

Already millennial women are taking their rightful place among America’s leaders. Soon they will begin to help redefine what it means to be an effective leader in the 21st century.

Millennials have overwhelmingly turned their backs on conventional notions about the place of women in society, making their generation the most gender neutral, if not female driven, in U.S. history.

A 2009 Pew survey indicated that 84 percent of millennials disagreed that “women should return to their traditional roles in society,” with two-thirds (67 percent) completely disagreeing with the idea. Last fall 82 percent of Millennials told Pew that the trend toward more women in the American workforce has been a “change for the better.”

Their generation is the first in U.S. history in which women are more likely to attend college and professional school than are men. Women are also more likely to receive bachelor’s degrees than men. By 2016, they are projected to earn 64 percent of associate’s degrees, 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 63 percent of master’s degrees, and 56 percent of doctorates. But despite of their greater representation in the student body, the number of women holding college student government office continues to lag behind men. “At the 50 colleges ranked highest by U.S. News & World Report, less than a third of student presidents are women.”

The Great Debate

In the end, however, the greatest contribution of Millennial women to American leadership may not be simply in holding formal positions, but in helping to redefine its very nature.

In 1964, Warren Bennis and Philip Slater, argued that corporate leadership characteristics would have to be altered to survive in a period of increasing social change in their Harvard Business Review article titled, “Democracy is Inevitable.” They cited five traits that would define corporate success in the future:

  1. Full and free communication, regardless of rank and power.
  2. A reliance on consensus to manage conflict.
  3. Influence based on competence and knowledge, not personal whims or prerogatives of power.
  4. An atmosphere that encourages emotional expressions as well as task-oriented acts.
  5. A human bias, willing to cope and mediate conflict between the organization and the individual.

In the intervening fifty years, Boomer parents have raised a generation of women whose attitudes and beliefs are best suited to exercising the style of leadership Bennis accurately predicted would come to dominate organizations in the future.

As social media technology constantly drives down the cost of communicating and increases the freedom and flexibility of each worker, hierarchical top down, command and control organizations are being increasingly supplanted by horizontal structures in which effective leadership depends on creating trust, coordinating innovation, cultivating creativity, and building consensus.

Warren Bennis has called Mike and Morley's book,  Millennial Momentum, "Extremely useful, readable and important...the only recent book I have been eager to blurb, it's THAT good."