I am a VP and editorial director at a large media company. Now 56 years old, I follow with interest debates about whether women at my level do enough to mentor millennial women — a heated and sometimes fractious discourse that covers why they do or don’t, if they should or shouldn’t and so much more. Famously, there’s Madeleine Albright’s “special place in hell,” arguing from the “should” camp (although she’d later characterize the statement as “undiplomatic”). There’s Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s supposition that women feel obligated not to show a gender bias, leading the “why they don’t” discussion.
And then there’s the less discussed but pervasive — and patronizing — attitude of a certain kind of senior leader toward her younger female colleagues. The sentiments shared with me, because I am old and it is assumed I will feel the same way, are as follows: Millennial women are entitled, brash, not deferential enough toward leadership, look at their phones when I’m talking in meetings and let’s not even get into what they wear to work. As a theme, the objections are mostly about ignoring social queues and not adhering to “normative” workplace behavior.
It should (but doesn’t) go without saying: What’s “normative” changes constantly. I try to remember this when I find myself rolling my eyes at generational differences in the workplace. It’s also worth knowing that they’re rolling their eyes back. I’m thinking of the time I referenced “the ladies’ room,” only to overhear one female employee grouse to another: “Why the f***k is a grown-ass woman talking about a ‘ladies’ room?’” The truth is, adapting to a changing world is how any of us survive — in the workplace and on the planet. And I don’t intend to stop adapting now, even if the change agents are women 35 years younger than I am. A partial list of what I’ve learned:
1. Casual references to calories, dieting and “I feel so fat” are not OK.
When I was the rising generation, a certain kind of striving-to-be-inclusive female boss would attempt to cozy up with “just us gals” chat like this. Fifty-something leaders, myself included, need to celebrate body positivism as a great leap forward.
2. Pronouns matter.
I got into a ridiculously heated discussion over using they/them when referring to an individual, so as to honor their not choosing to use he/she/him/her. My wrong-headed objection was grammatically based — an individual can’t use plural pronouns, I said. I was so, so wrong. The argument ends here: Yes, they can, no matter what the Chicago Manual of Style might think.
3. (Office) Clothing, optional.
Women miss the point when they judge each other on clothing choices— bared midriffs, ripped jeans, lacy bralettes worn over tops. Too long, we’ve had men characterize us by how we dress. Let’s not do that to each other, OK?
4. Don’t use prissy punctuation on Slack.
I’m an editor. I like a well-placed semi-colon and the proper use of an en dash. But Slack (or a text) is not the place for them.
5. Stop all that ‘splaining.
Sometimes, when you’re the boss of people in the room or simply when you happen to be the one talking, you talk over people about something you know less about than they do. This is a kind of abuse of power at worst and borderline offensive at best. And by “you,” I mean “me.”
6. Girl, not interrupted.
I’ve been stunned — in a good way — at my younger female colleagues’ easy deflection of manterrupters. It’s not harder than this, as it turns out: “Give me another sec; I haven’t finished my point, Andrew.”
7. I am not her mother.
There’s a slightly icky workplace type called the Office Mom, who helps the young’uns personally and professionally (whether they want her help or not). It’s all too easy to see your daughter in like-aged colleagues. But remember: They’re not.