How Our Workplaces are Letting Down the Next Generation

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A young woman in her 20s was puzzling on a question.

Why, she wondered, did so many of her women friends fall into traditional roles after children?

"They're all similarly career oriented with partners in their 20s," she said. "The men say they want to be equal parents. But then they have babies, and suddenly the woman is doing everything for the kids while the guy's expected to be at work."

Happens every time, she said. "I don't get it."

Millennials: A Generation Being Pulled in Reverse

The conversation was dispiriting for a lot of reasons, but mostly this one: weren't Millennials supposed to be the generation to figure this out?

Unfortunately, the status quo keeps propelling them backwards.

A recent Harvard Business Review article showed men continue to be penalized at work for non-male mannerisms. The study largely referenced behaviors -- vulnerability, empathy, sadness. But it's an extension of what we found in our Modern Family Index (MFI) -- that men are penalized for taking time for families at work. The mere act of finding a changing table in a men's room can be a challenge. "Fathers assert that their children's interests are their top priority," read a 2017 study by the Boston College Center for Work & Family, "but are also highly susceptible to the demands of their corporate cultures."

It's not just male stereotypes, but women's as well. Women remain saddled with domestic responsibilities, charged with managing virtually everything for the family at home, even as they're increasingly breadwinners at work. According to our MFI:

  • Women are three times as likely as men to feel it's their job to stay on top of kids' schedules
  • They're more than twice as likely to have missed work to take care of their children
  • They're almost twice as likely to keep track of all household responsibilities

Changing the Way We Think -- and Talk About -- Working Parents

Just the way we talk about women holds them back. As Bright Horizons' Vice President of Communications Ilene Serpa put it, merely categorizing men as "babysitters" is problematic. "The word, "babysitter" keeps them in the "helper" category," she said, "ensuring that women remain perceived as the parent primary at home, and so secondary at work."

These not-so-subtle cues leave a mark; every time a woman is expected to carry the family burden and a man is expected to be at work, it reinforces the stereotypes that push women into reduced business roles...if not out the door. The result is Millennial parent partnerships that are not quite as equal as they set out to be...and women who opt out.

Why do we care? Simple. We need all hands on deck. The Bureau of Labor Statics reported this week that there are a record number of job openings. As LinkedIn put it, "available jobs outnumber jobless workers who are actively seeking work by almost 100,000 the most ever." Add that to the fact that women are outnumbering men on college campuses, and it becomes clear that outdated stereotypes have substantial costs.

It means our workplace cultures and policies are going to have to catch up with our Millennials. Fairy Godboss' Samantha Samel put it this way:  "In order for women to successfully take on roles that have previously been dominated by men in the workplace," she wrote, "assumptions about their life at home may have to be reconsidered."

It's an interesting thought. Then maybe the equal partnerships Millennials expect will make it past the delivery room...into the office.

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.